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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Week With Friends, Part I

I've been too busy to post, then haven't had Internet for several days. What kept me too busy were four friends that flew up from Houston, Texas to visit me for a week. And of course, I had to cook - two of them stayed with me and I fed the gang, plus a couple of bunk mates supper a few nights - and travel with them.

They arrived at Sacramento Airport around 1:30 on Saturday and got their reserved van and drove the 85 or so miles up to me, stopping on the way to see the famous falcated duck which is still wowing people. I had to work on Sunday, so they stopped by the visitor center to visit me, after joining me for breakfast, and then drove around in the light rain to see local birds. As soon as I was finished, we grabbed my bags and jumped into the van and headed for Santa Rosa where my friend Natalie has a cousin who was crazy enough to let us stay with her two nights. She also took a sick day to guide us around Bodega Bay and then to two Wineries.

She met us at a wonderful Italian restaurant that was like no other I've ever been to.  We had a series of small, but delicious and wonderfully presented courses. Then we shoehorned ourselves into her cozy house, filled with mostly her paintings. The next morning we started of to Bodega Bay where we found birds and took a hike thought the ice plants and other ground covers while enjoying a huge surf. Then we had to eat crabs.  We ate at a little crab shack and had crab sandwiches, crab cakes and crab chowder that was wonderful.

Our Van with Bob, Leslie, our hostess for two nights, and Natalie

The ocean outside Bodega Bay

Ice plant and other plants made a beautiful grouondcover

The gang eating crab everything

After lunch, we went north along Highway 1 to River Road which runs along the Russian River.  Our destination was CarolCarol  Shelton Wines, the most awarded vintner in the United States, and a friend of Leslie. We enjoyed wonderful scenery and stopped a few times to get pictures of the beautiful views. 

A view of the Russian River

Carol Shelton with Natalie, Leslie, and Tracy

Leslie painted the large mural behind the tasting counter at Carol Shelton Wines

Friends - Bob, Natalie, Tracy and Dutch in the Discovery Room of Sacramento NWR Visitor Center
After this winery, we went to Rodney Strong but I was pretty wined out and was ready to take a little rest so stayed in the car. After this we changed our habits and went to the Russian River Brewery Restaurant for pizza.  A few of us still had room for some beer but most of us stuck with water. The pizza there has some of the beer yeast added to the pizza dough for a different but delicious flavor.

Then it was time to go back to Leslie's house and almost immediately go to bed so we could get up early, pack up, eat breakfast and head to Point Reyes.

To be continued.

My only disaster was accidentally leaving my camera at work.  Bob loaned me his little point and shoot camera but my photo's are way below par.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winter Visit to the Mendocino Coast Botantical Garden

When I checked the parks and gardens near where I was in Fort Bragg, CA on my visit to the coast, I found I was very near a botanical garden,  I love them and often visit them with my friend, Natalie.  Last year we even took a vacation to visit several gardens including the Missouri Botanical Garden, a  definite must-see one.

As soon as I entered the parking lot, I was immediately blown away by the landscaping. Even in winter, there was lots of excitement and textural interest from mostly grasses and shrubs. A few  shrubs were blooming wildly. I decided it was probably worth a few hours of my time to visit the garden proper.  I took my little camera and immediately started taking pictures. After several minutes, I got to the entrance and paid $10 for my ticket to visit.

The docent gave me a map of the gardens and told me that they have collections of camellias, rhododendrons, including tender scented ones from cloud forests, old hybrid ones, and a collection of ones that grow well locally.  Other collections include the heath/heather collection, fuchsias, dahlias, begonias, native plants and a vegetable garden/orchid. They also have a wonderful little nursery with lots of different plants to sell.  And the grounds themselves are a wonderful mix of forest, coastal plain, and formal gardens. 

These pictures were taken in the parking lot.

The original forested area has been left and enhanced with understory shrubs and ferns. It makes for a serene time on this trail.

The rhododendron garden is in the shade of trees as well as out in the open more. Only a few of them had any blooms.

 I was totally blown away by the heather garden. I kept coming back from different angles and falling in love and lust all over again. The landscaping is just so perfect with the color combinations and the soft mounds undulating through the garden. And I loved the subtle changes in textures here.


There is a lot of sculptures in the garden. They are all for sale.

The Garden is currently building a conifer collection. I loved these "candles".


This garden is famous for it's Camilla collections.  Right now, that beauty is only a promise.

They have a wonderful succulent garden here. I was totally unable to do it justice.

And the perennial garden is also totally off the wall.

The overriding theme of this garden was texture.  It was everywhere I looked. Almost no plants were alone but with plants that complemented their color and texture.

Another important collection is their fuchsias.  I was wowed by a shrub at least three and a half feet high and five feet across. There were many other large fuchsias there.  Obviously the ones I use to buy in the fall and throw out in the spring were babies struggling for life in a hostile environment.

 I was charmed by the children's garden. These eggs, big enough to hold a two year old human hatchling, were my favorites, but they had a native teepee, a sandbox, and a place to hunt for dragonflies among other fun places to be.

I heard and saw robins all day but this one plopped down on a bench just in front of me and posed.  So I had to take his picture.  Over 150 species have been documented here.

This little garden shed was also charming. It is near the vegetable garden and apple orchid. The original owners grew apples and potatoes here. The garden was mostly dormant but had some beautiful greens growing. And the texture theme is carried out here as well.

After you walk out through the forest, you come to the coastal plain and get to see this view.  I could have stayed here for hours watching the waves.  In fact, I shot bursts of the waves coming in to catch the best sprays.  Then I spent more hours deleting most of them.

Here is the map of the gardens. Notice the different habitats here. The original backbone of the land is intact and helps set the structure of the garden. And many of the changes to the land are from many years ago, so appear part of the normal California flora.

I ended up staying here until the garden closed at 4:30P.  I'm definitely going back just before I leave to get another garden fix. I ran two cameras out of batteries and want to go back with my macro lens for better pictures. And I'm advising that this garden should be on your top 100 gardens to visit before you die.

The staff are also starting a collections of plants native to this area of California. This will be a great resource to people wanting to grow natives and for people wanting to learn the names of the plants they see in the natural areas.
And there's MORE!  This is a great whale watching site and should be wonderful in February.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Going to the Coast

As I set off before dawn last Wednesday, a song kept going through my head, over the mountains and through the woods, to the coast I go.  I had decided to follow Hwy. 20 further than I had made it the last time I set out that way, and to just see what I could see. I had two cameras and my binoculars and even my scope.  I planned to just stop whenever something interested me but had no particular destination.

As I began to climb through the foothills, dawn broke behind me while the moon seemed to be bouncing up and down and to the right and the left as I wound up and down the mountains.

I managed to not stop until I was near the north of Clear Lake. I stopped to look for birds but only found one beautiful image of frost  This was when I noticed I had left my jacket home.  However I had a spare jacket in my backpack and a heavy shirt on so I was OK.

I stopped to check out the historical district of a tiny town called Upper Lake. It was very colorful and even had decorative hitching posts outside some of the buildings.

I admired this decoration on top of an antiques store.


This basket looked very colorful.  But the color is coming from the geranium leaves. This area was all frosted over when I was driving through so they don't have very many flowers in bloom.

Another interesting place that caught my eye was the Jackson Demonstration Forest.  I was a long way from the coast  on roads that kept me averaging about 45 mph, so I only stopped a few minutes to see what it was all about.  This boiler looking thing mounted on big long redwood logs caught my eye.  I found it was called a steam donkey, but nothing else. I looked it up and found it was a steam driven winch.  A long cable was attached to a fallen tree and then the steam donkey pulled it out to a logging site or to a pick-up point.  The steam donkey could even drag itself to a new location. It was anchored to a big tree or other anchor and then pulled itself toward the anchor.

When I  got to Clear Lake, I stopped a few times to look for ducks. These common mergansers were in a lake west of Clear Lake and very far down the bank from the road.

I had to stop a lot to take pictures of the beautiful views. As I went further west,  the hills were covered with more and more trees.

I saw a sign for Lake Mendocino Recreational Area and went in to find a tiny stream and a closed park. But, this stream  runs into the large, dammed Lake Mendocino.

There were several wineries along the way.  The grape vines added yet another texture to the landscape.

And this old barn was another beautiful texture. The frost was still on the ground and even on moss growing on the old posts and fence slats.

As I traveled west, the land looked like it gets much more rain and has more and more trees until mostly all there is are trees and understory.. The last stretch of the road wound tightly through dark forests. The north side must only get full sunlight in summer. In many places, there wasn't much room for error - there is a mostly a sheer drop on the right side. And the views were to tree-covered mountains.  The driving rule is that the slower driver has to pull off where there is a place to do so. But I also stopped in a lot of the pullouts to check out the views.

Finally, about four hours after I started, I got to Fort Brag.  I had set my GPS to show me parks in the area.  I saw one called Ten Mile Coastal Trail that looked really interesting, so I set my GPS to go there.  But when I got to Fort Brag, I took one more look at the GPS and found that Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden was only a few miles south. So I decided to detour there before heading north to Ten Mile Coastal Trail.

This is one of the pictures I took while still in the parking lot. I was immediately hooked, and went in and paid my $10 dollars. It was now almost  noon but I had lots of daylight left.  I ate a orange before starting out for a quick peek.  That peek lasted through two camera batteries and the rest of the day.

To be continued. 

And on a postscript to the falcated duck story,  I got to spend the whole morning there for the last two days.  The bird is fantastic and comes ever closer and feeds and displays to the oohs and ahs of his adoring audience. But even better, to me, is that six weeks of having a constant human presence from dawn to dusk on the viewing platform, has convinced the birds that people there are no threat and we can now get closer pictures of pintails, gadwalls, cinnamon teals, shovelers, American and Eurasian widgeon and even greater white-fronted geese and snow and Ross's geese than we can from the photo blinds. Today we had a coot coming towards me and another visitor from about twelve feet away.  So hurry up to see the falcated duck and all his friends at and Colusa NWR. .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Those Frustrating Blue and White Geese

When the refuge does its bimonthly survey of geese and ducks, it has to list the geese as white, white-fronted, Tule, Canadas and Cackling - in several subspecies.

But actually the white geese are made up of two species, Snow and Ross's and two morphs - a blue and a white - in both. They hang out together or separately but when you are measuring white areas and translating that into geese, the species can't be differentiated.

The last survey in December, 2011 showed that there were 57,000 white geese on the refuge. Even though I know snow geese well, I have never gotten comfortable in identifying a Ross's goose because, in the central flyway, Ross's are extremely uncommon and I'm a very slow learner.

But in Sacramento Valley they are estimated to make up thirty percent of the white geese, and they can be found on any given day in in most groups of white geese, sometimes in large, pure groups. So I've started learning the differences between snows and Ross's geese.

I still can't see the faster wing beat of the Ross's geese and the smaller body when they are flying, but I can spot them on the ground pretty easily now.  The Ross's have a cuter, baby-faced  look to them because their heads are rounder and their bills are shorter, as compared to each other and as the bill length is compared to the thickness of the bird's neck just at the junction with the head.

This picture has three Ross's geese in it. See how the bill is really short and the head round?  And see how small they are- hardly bigger than a pintail duck. 

These geese all look like snows.  See the longer bill and more elongated head? See how the bill is longer than the diameter of the neck?

I can't see these next birds well enough to tell what they are for sure, but think they are all snows.  All the birds with grey backs are this year's young. Some visitors see them as a different species.  I think they are now leaving their family groups and hanging out with their friends.  Usually I see two adults with two or three young but yesterday I saw about twelve young birds with brownish heads and varying amounts of grey in their backs hanging out together.


Blue morphs occur in both species. I'm used to seeing about twenty-five to thirty percent of blue morphs in the central flyway, but here they are very rare.  I took all the pictures of  blue morphs in one day and haven't seen any since then. But a visitor showed me a picture he had taken of a blue Ross's goose. Blue and white are color genes and blue is an in incomplete dominant gene.  (This really surprised me because the ratios made me think blue was the recessive gene.)  However blue geese prefer to mate with each other and white geese also prefer each other.  But geese often lay eggs in other geese's  nests so sometimes a blue is raised by a white pair or a white goose is raised by a blue pair.  These geese imprint on their parents and mate geese the color of their parents. If a goose is a hybrid of the two colors, it will have a white belly.  That means one parent was white and the other was a blue.

The dark goose in this picture had one white parent and one blue parent. The blue and the snow in the foreground are showing another snow feature, the snow grin patch and strongly curved lower mandible. Both of these are absent in snows. The grin patch looks like a black marking on the bill.

Another blue snow goose, this time with a mix of snows and Ross's. At least four of these geese are Ross's. And the snows show the bill markings clearly.

This is yet another blue.  I know because I photographed them all in the same half hour and just moved from one resting group to another. I think a couple of the geese way in the back are Ross's but I need a more sideways look to be sure.

A month after I got the blue snow geese, I was able to get a barely adequate picture of a blue Ross goose. I found it while checking out the auto tour - this mostly means looking at birds but we also note any drivers out of their cars and ask them to get back in. I found this bird about 30 minutes before I had to be back to turn in my vehicle.  And he would NOT wake up and pose for me. Finally,  I rushed to headquarters, turned in the car and hurried to my car.  Then I had to go around at least thirty cars before I could get back to the far end of the auto tour.  By this time the bird had woken up and moved further back in the crowd. But this picture is very exciting to me anyway, as this is my first blue Ross. And since there are only about one blue Ross's to every 10,000 white Ross's, if I get another picture this year, it will probably be of this bird.

And to make matters even more confusing, these two breeds can hybridize.  In fact, some experts believe that blue Ross's geese are actually hybrids between blue snows and Ross's.  If that is the case the blue gene doesn't work the same way AND their bills don'tlook like those of hybrid snows/Ross's.  I'm sure I'll never notice any hybrids, though. For a thorough discussion of how to identify these two species and the hybrids of them, along with drawings, see David Sibley's blog on Identification of White Geese. Thankfully, I pretty much don't have to think about the greater snow geese that occur in the Atlantic flyway.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Making Old Birds New Again

There's nothing better than a new bird except getting to show old birds to new birders. I got to guide a van full of new birders (although one grandfather was a duck hunter and rice grower) thru Colusa NWR yesterday, and had probably the best time of everyone.

I had already seen that there were way too many people on the refuge to expect to see the falcated duck so, after I gave everyone binoculars and a guide to waterfowl, and gave them a little discussion of what ducks we would see, we drove the auto tour.  We started out by checking out the over-sized feet of the coots in the road and discussed how they differed from ducks. Then we saw a big bird that wasn't a duck sitting on a little island.  In the binoculars, it turned out to be a peregrine falcon which then tried to fly off with its coot.  But it dropped it and then circled around several times for our extra enjoyment.  I thought it was circling back again but realized we had a harrier coming through.  We got to see another harrier later in the trip and some of the group could already call it. What brilliant students they were. 

We learned gadwalls, shovelers, mallards, and ring-necked ducks before we even got to the bridge.  Then we enjoyed two great egrets and a great blue heron sunbathing.  Soon everyone could decide what duck they were seeing. We found lots and lots of greater white-fronted geese, and got one good, albeit distant view of a male bufflehead.   We stopped to look at some golden-crowned sparrows and watched a couple of pie-billed grebes. Then we got to see a two cock pheasants and a deer in short order, and almost immediately after the deer crossed the road in front of us, we found an American Bittern sitting out in the open.   We rounded the last corner and enjoyed a close-up view of a red-tailed hawk, got a glimpse of a red-shouldered hawk, and got several looks at a kestral. And then I had to stop because I saw a single long-billed curlew on a levee. We also got distant looks at snow geese, none close enough to be able to find Ross's geese. Finally we enjoyed all the night herons in their roost just before the bridge.

The sunning great blue heron - (thanks for snapping the picture Charles)

Immature female red-tail hawk

Same bird front view

We got back to the viewing platform about  3:00 P.M. and were told by the other twenty or so people there that the falcated duck was actively feeding.  So I set up the scope and everyone got to see it and also enjoy closer views of the ducks and geese we had already learned.

Me and the birding group minus the photographer

The viewing platform after I removed the nine of us

It was hard to break away but I had strict orders to get back to Sacramento NWR by 4:00 P.M.Otherwise all of us were ready to continue birding until dark.