There is a lot of wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and not all of it has feathers.
Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and this was certainly one of those instances. With the incredibly low temperatures that were present for the last few days, there was almost no open water around – it was all frozen. One canal had some exposed water around an outlet pipe, with ice starting to encroach but enough open water to attract a small flock of water fowl.
I was out of my jeep watching a small group of pintails, green-winged teals, mallards and grebes in the small bit of open water, suddenly they “gently” flushed – they didn’t fly, but they walked out of the water. I didn’t flush them, but I couldn’t figure out what did. I turned for a moment to grab something in my jeep, when I looked back I saw what appeared to be a mallard duck struggling to get out of the water and onto the ice. Then I realized that it was actually the duck’s rear end that was out of the water! As my mind struggled to put the vision before me together, the duck slipped under the surface of the water. A few seconds later, a huge river otter popped up out of the water onto the ice with the (now dead) duck in its mouth!
I watched it consume the duck for almost an hour, occasionally it would retreat under water (sometimes with its meal!) when other people drove by or came too close (which unfortunately some did come too close).
There were times that the otter appeared to nod off after so much eating, but he wasn’t about to stop – he just needed some dinner naps. I’ve been there.
Otters are such a joy to watch, their behavior is always fascinating. Such beautiful, fun creatures. I’m sure the ducks felt differently.
During the time I was watching the otter, a northern harrier floated down the canal in the air and made a successful strike on a small bird – just 10 feet from the otter! I’ll put the series of pictures from that in the next blog …
The show wasn’t over though. After that a prairie falcon came in and made an unsuccessful strike on a small duck in the canal behind me! This place was a hot spot!
The other water fowl seemed to realize the otter was satiated, as they came back into close proximity of the otter as it was eating and even afterwards while he was still in the area. After the otter finished, another harrier moved in to scavenge the duck as the sun set.
I imagine it wasn’t long after I left that the coyotes I heard howling nearby moved in for the rest of the scraps. Their tracks were all over the Basin area, and I saw four of them during my two days there, moving at a rapid pace through the preserves as they hunted.
A ranger that I told about the encounter had been at the same location earlier and saw a bobcat. It was likely no coincidence that this spot was so active – the open water attracted the water fowl, which in turn attracted the predators.
Such a fun day. I stayed out past sunset watching everything unfold, and the temperature dropped quickly. I was happy to get back to town that night for a warm bed. Unfortunately I had some camera malfunction issues, so my shots aren’t as good as I’d hoped (auto-focus issues) – I learned the hard way to test new equipment more thoroughly before being out in the field! That is minor though – WHAT A DAY!!! It’s not often that you see this kind of show!! Very grateful to have the opportunity to be up there and that there are people protecting it. Check out KS Wild, one of the many groups helping the cause.
The Klamath Basin area is home to multiple National Wildlife Refuges (six of them!), and is a major stop-off for migrating water fowl along the Pacific Flyway during the autumn and spring. This flat high desert area (around 4000 feet elevation) straddles the border of Oregon and California and is just east of the Cascade mountain range. It is also host to a lot of agriculture, using waters diverted from the Klamath River to irrigate fields. The Basin sits in view of several volcanoes that are part of the Cascade range, and the area is of volcanic origins. It is truly a magical landscape. Recently it has become even more exciting as there are now two small wolf packs that call the Cascades just west of the Basin home (one of which is the famous OR-7 wolf, who at one point traveled to California and became the first confirmed wolf in CA since the 1930’s)!
The wetlands themselves are estimated to be only 25% of what they once were, due to appropriation of land and water to agriculture. Many interests share this region, and it is often the subject of debate on how to best share the resources among all them, including Wildlife/Plants, Indigenous People, agriculture, hunters, birders, fishing folks, etc.
During the winter months, there is a very high population of raptors that migrate here to wait out the winter due to the availability of prey (and it should be noted that agriculture fields that are dormant often provide a home to many rodents, thereby attracting more raptors). Here during the winter can be found the highest density population of bald eagles in the continental U.S. outside of Alaska! I have been there previously and seen around 50 eagles in one 360 degree view! Not only that, there are a lot of northern migrants such as rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks, species not often seen this far west or south. Those in addition to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, assorted falcons, many owls and more can be seen here.
I braved some cold temperatures, especially the first day – it was near 0 deg F. A ranger I spoke to said that in the morning he had seen a northern pintail (type of duck) that came out of some reeds and couldn’t get its wings to extend – they had frozen to its body during the night! That’s cold (it eventually did free its wings). Needless to say there weren’t many people out there besides me, but I was able to see some amazing sites and sights (which I’ll highlight over the next few blog posts).
A few of the birds during the trip:
My final picture of the first day is a great summary of the area. The sun had set over a half hour before I took this picture – I saw these birds sitting in a tree as I was driving out. My old jeep was not doing a great job of keeping the cold out, but despite my numb fingers and toes I got out to snap this shot. As you can see, the area does not have many trees, so they are coveted by many different birds. Because of the density of prey and lack of trees, often I see multiple species sharing a tree or telephone pole – a necessary truce. The large forms in the tree are a bald eagle on the left, and a red-tailed hawk on the right! They are buddies! At least for the night (usually I see red-tails chasing and harassing bald eagles). Sprinkled among mostly the tree on the left are many red-winged blackbirds as well.
Some great resources to learn more about the area:
Winter Wings Festival – http://winterwingsfest.org/
This February weekend (this year it is Feb 11-14 2016) focuses on raptors in the Klamath Basin area and attracts many people to the area. Tours and guides are available, as well as many other events. Definitely worthwhile!!!
Lava Beds National Monument is nearby, and Mount Shasta is not far to the south. The whole area is really magical, any time of year.
More to come …
I had the good fortune to go for an adventure yesterday with a friend to practice trailing animals – the species of focus was the feral pig (feral hog).
The weather was outstanding, despite some strong winds early in the day. It doesn’t get much nicer here than these sunny days with clear blue skies and temps in the 70’s – and the light was great too. I knew it was going to be a good day when not long after sunrise I saw a juvenile bald eagle (hatch year / 1st year) perched in a tree overlooking a creek. It was eyeing up some water fowl and steelhead, the latter of which were spawning in the creek bed below.
[juvenile bald eagle]
Steelhead are a type of salmon, and once were found in great numbers up and down the west coast. As with many of the salmon, their populations have been suffering due to over-fishing, habitat loss, and pollution. This time of year, mature fish swim from the ocean back into small creeks and streams from where they were born, where they create nests in the creek beds to lay their eggs. Unlike other salmon who die after spawing, some steelhead return to the ocean for another go. Interestingly, according to current science taxonomy, they are the same species as rainbow trout – the difference being that steelhead are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their life in the ocean. Because of this, they look physically different than fresh water rainbow trout (larger). These fish shown below were probably close to three feet long!
I was on my way to a remote area of western Sonoma County where we were going to do our wander, on some land miles from any roads by the Gualala River. I feel like Sonoma County is my “second childhood home” – and it felt so good to be visiting on this beautiful spring day.
When driving along a ridge line with views going miles in all directions, the land looks like a piece of bunched up fabric – deep, drastic valleys at the bottom of steep descents that fall from high mountain tops and ridge lines. Huge stands of douglas fir and redwood are on many of the north-facing slopes, with oak woodland spanning other parts of the more sunny areas. Some of the land remains ranch land, and many folks have made their living with sheep and cattle out here. “As the crow flies,” the distance between two points seems not too far – but when traveling on land, it can take a long time to travel a short distance. And there’s seldom a direct route. Perhaps it is this ruggedness that has helped keep it somewhat intact – it isn’t conducive to the industries of man. May it remain as such!*
Feral pigs, also called feral hogs, are non-native animals whose relatives escaped from the domestic life and have secured a place for themselves and their progeny in the wild. Sonoma County has a large population of them, and many areas of the country consider them to be a pest. They certainly don’t tread lightly on a landscape – in areas of high density, the ground can be torn up all over the place from their rooting. They are an amazing animal – highly intelligent, very social, and incredibly adaptable. They can also get pretty big – some of the larger boars are around 300 pounds! And they can be pretty intimidating to see – large tusks, coarse hair covering parts of their body – they often don’t look like their barn-yard cousins.
I have mixed feelings about the native / non-native debate. The truth is that many of our ecosystems are so different than they were prior to European colonization – especially with the removal of so many of the apex predators – that it is unlikely they will ever be the same. Especially without reintroduction of the trees, plants and animals that were originally here and created a balanced web of life. You don’t grow old-growth redwood trees overnight. I imagine the pigs would not be as successful if there were wolves and grizzly bears around (as there once were in this area) – but I bet the main detractors of the hogs would be even less apt to welcome that strategy!
There is a difference for humans, psychologically, when labeling an animal as a pest and/or a non-native – somehow it’s life seems to be valued less. I have an issue with this. These are still living, breathing creatures, just doing what we all are doing here – trying to make a living. I’m not suggesting that all non-native animals should just run amok with no management plan in place, but I do believe there can be better, more compassionate management strategies that are also more supported by science. Ones that honor these animals as individual living beings, with a value the same as any other living being. Sadly, humans have used (and continue to use) this type of labeling to denigrate people too – whole cultures, races, and people of varying lifestyles have been subjected to horrible treatment because of this manipulative psychology of labeling.
It was fun to get to be in the world of the hogs for the morning! We started off by looking for some fresh tracks so that we could have a chance at being able to trail and find the animal that laid them. The pig sign was everywhere – the trick was finding something fresh. Despite some of the recent rains, the ground in some areas was already becoming quite dry again, so it wasn’t holding sign as well as it had been just a week ago.
[some fairly fresh hog tracks]
We ended up on several different hog trails, the first of which took us down a steep hill side, traversing downward through the trees. We saw quite a few pig beds – all empty – strategically situated at the base of large trees on a steep slope, with crunchy leaves all around that would belie the presence of an approaching predator (or tracker!) and allow for multiple escape routes. After being on it for quite a distance, eventually we lost the trail – which seemed impossible, given we were following a number of individuals travelling together. How do 150 to 300 pound animals seem to vanish and leave no discernible sign? Perhaps there is a “pig vortex,” similar to the “raptor vortex” – the place raptors seem to often disappear to, out of the air, when you take your eye off them for a second! Amazing! Humbling.
We continued on, looking for another trail to follow, and eventually we found some more fresh sign just off the dirt access road we were following. After poking around a bit, we took a hog trail down another steep slope descending 100’s of vertical feet. There were some fairly fresh tracks on it, but mostly we were just curious where they were going as it seemed to be a highly used trail. It took us all the way down to the bottom of the valley – and to the Gualala River.
I could have spent days at that spot. The river was gently flowing past, its gray-green waters moving over small round river stones on its bed. Small waterfalls and seeps were cascading into the river from the steep hillsides, scouring the rocks and making a home for glowing moss and lichens. An abundance of life, and signs of animals passing through, was everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the calm and beauty.
I finally couldn’t resist and waded into the water (it was also the easier route around some poison oak that was guarding a narrow pass on the steep banks!), and saw a couple of newts hanging out under the surface of the chilly water …
[red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis)]
[rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa granulosa)]
Once I made my way back to shore, we saw a little snake sunning itself on a rock ledge. All the animals seemed to be in the same blissful, relaxed state that I was in … under the spell of the Gualala River and the warm sun above.
[CA red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis)]
Finally, we hit upon some nice fresh hog tracks in the soft sediment on the banks of the river. Back on it!
These were likely from a pretty big boar. We followed him back up the hillside from where we came, but once again after a little while we lost the trail. Humbling! As we fanned out and attempted to pick it back up again, we found another little creature on the hillside under a log that we had disturbed.
[juvenile speckled black salamander? (Aneides flavipunctatus flavipunctatus)]
We put a new rock and some leaves back over this young lady to keep her out of the sun after we left.
[some type of lily? anyone?]
[UPDATE – Fritillaria affinis aka the chocolate lily or checkered lily
thank you Ann for the ID!]
As we got to the top of the hill, we found the boar tracks again … and it was one of the tracks that we had originally seen when we started on this trail! We had come full circle.
We reluctantly made our way out of the property, but as we were leaving we spotted one last treat – a golden eagle! it was a double eagle day. A good sign and a perfect ending to a great morning.
I am so thankful to have gotten to spend the day out there, many thanks to my friend Matt for taking time to share this special place with me.
* As a side-note, in recent times vineyard owners have been trying to push into some of these areas because they are ideal for certain grape varietals, such as the popular pinot noir. Thankfully there are many organizations, including Native groups, that are spearheading the effort to keep this land intact from groups who want to convert forest to vineyards (or other clear-cutting). The amount of life that is impacted by deforestation is astounding, and humans have already destroyed 96% – NINETY SIX PERCENT – of existing redwood ecosystems since the west was “settled” … and old growth constitutes just a small part of that which remains. Scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding ecology and the web of life on this planet, and it has been shown that the canopies of redwood forests contain a huge amount of biodiversity. Seems like there is a lot of value in honoring these remaining places – and perhaps a duty to do so.
i ran into another old friend on friday … a dark morph (or rufous/intermediate morph) red-tailed hawk that has spent the last few winters in berkeley. it’s fun when i get to know an individual animal, and this one has been around for a few years but i just saw her for the first time this season about a week ago. i was happy to see her again.
when i first saw her we gave each other a little wave (ha!)
right about the time that i saw her, a huge flock of crows was moving through the area and it didn’t take long for some of them to spot her too. crows love to harass red-tails, and today was no different. first one or two took up the chase, and soon there was a flock of close to 50 crows escorting her out of the area.
i’ve mentioned this before, but there are some corvid researchers (i can’t remember who) who say that this mobbing behavior could be a corvid “right of passage” – which makes some sense to me because there is very little reason that i can think of for the birds to do it other than fun or to establish social ranking.
Sunday was a warm and clear day on the coast, strange weather for January – it felt like summer (well, summer anywhere besides the coast and the Bay area). We started the day by witnessing some interesting behavior by a couple of deer that caught our attention. The deer, which appeared to be doe and a yearling (nearly the same size), were standing with heads raised and their focus on something in the chaparral to the north of us. The yearling took off trotting, then bounding, right towards the path we were on, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. It then stopped and turned around, bounding back to its mother. The two of them then started a slow walk in the direction of the threat, with the mother in the lead. Shifting our position back down the trail, we were able to see what was causing the concern …
I was only able to catch the tail-end of the bobcat as he disappeared into a coyote bush (for the moment now a bobcat bush) – a large male that uses this particular territory who’ve we’ve tracked and seen around here before. Although I think it’s rare for bobcats to take down full grown deer in this area, fawns are fair game. This particular young one is probably big enough to be safe, but given the respect that the deer on this day showed towards him, and on another occasion when I witnessed his presence disturb them, I’d say he is still viewed as a threat. He seems to be a large bobcat based on his tracks and scat.
The most interesting part of this whole interaction was when the deer started to FOLLOW the bobcat – the doe literally walked right to where the cat had disappeared, and she seemed to be chasing HIM out of the area! Good stuff.
On the way in to the lagoons, I spotted an American bittern in a small pond along the pathway – I’ve seen one on the far shores of the larger lagoon, but never one so out in the open here. It was shaping up to be another good day, with lots of live animal sightings. Later in the day on the return trip it was still there and posed for some pictures in the beautiful light.
As we approached the lagoon, a resident great-blue heron was hunting in the shallows.
There were quite a few sets of trails and tracks on the dunes, but the striped skunks were most prevalent. This is their mating season, during which they really seem to be wandering around outside of their normal areas with higher frequency – sadly it is also marked by the large number of road kill skunks at this time of year. Notably absent was the female bobcat that usually patrols this area. It is also breeding season for the cats, so her daily patterns are likely interrupted by the breeding impulse. I also spotted at least one golden eagle soaring above the hills, only the second time I’ve seen one in this particular area. Along with a ferruginous hawk sighting (a somewhat rare winter visitor in this area) and the great view of an intermediate morph red-tailed hawk, we had some great raptor and other bird sightings. During the day at various times the family of otters was visible on the upper lagoon, but I never really was close enough for any pictures. Just their presence is a joy, watching them even from afar is so fun.
As we were resting by the lagoon, a pie-billed grebe made it’s way out of the shallows by the cattails with quite a prize – after straining to identify what it was, we realized it was a small bass! The grebe paddled around with the fish in its beak for at least five minutes, occasionally shaking it and twice losing it in the water, but diving down and quickly recapturing it. Finally, after almost ten minutes, it downed the fish whole!!
Another great day out there, I’m so thankful for that place and to be able to wander in it. Thanks also to Richard Vacha and everyone who participated in this Marin Tracking Club excursion for making it a fun and educational day.
Earlier this week we saw a little beak protruding up from the Anna’s hummingbird nest that I shared a couple of weeks ago …
This lone hatchling seems strong and is getting big quickly – they only stay in the nest for 20 days!
This little fella (lady?) was confused by all the commotion beneath its roosting tree today at Tilden Regional Park … as evidence by the disapproving “scowl” caught in the second pic below.
Ok, maybe it wasn’t a scowl. Just a sleepy bird.
Many thanks to Anthony Fisher of East Bay Regional Parks who led us on this adventure!
The egg was laid in the end of January, and just last weekend the baby hatched … pictures of the wee one coming soon. It is doing well, it seems strong but still is just a very tiny being with closed eyes in a comfy looking nest with lots of fluffy grey feathers lining its world. I wish I had a human-sized hummingbird nest to lounge in, it looks so nice.
Rough-legged, that is.
Last Saturday I helped lead a raptor tour at Lynch Canyon for Solano County Land Trust with Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch … and I don’t think anyone was disappointed. Two rough-legged hawks made an appearance along with the many resident red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, kestrels, northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, and a pair of golden eagles. We also had two peregrine falcons soar over us. Good day. Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic and it is uncommon to see them this far south, though this year there seem to be more of them than usual during the winter here in the Bay Area.
I was spoiled the other day while observing peregrine falcons (besides the fact that I was observing peregrine falcons!) – a fellow East Bay photographer, George Suennen, let me borrow his “more advanced” (aka more expensive) lens setup for a couple of shots (Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Lens with a 2x teleconverter). I REALLY REALLY don’t want to like this piece of equipment, but … WOW. Very gracious of him to offer for me to use it, I’m not sure if I thank him or curse him for putting that thing in my hands!!
Right now I typically shoot with a different Canon 300mm lens – the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (but I DON’T have a 2x teleconverter attached – which brings the L-series lens setup to an equivalent of 600mm!). To understand the difference in lenses, a visual comparison is in order of course. Both images below are cropped close to 100% but no other post-processing has been applied (sharpening, contrast/brightness adjustment, etc). The same camera body was used. The difference between the lens setups is very evident.
Are the results worth 14x the amount of money more? I suppose that’s an individual choice. It’s certainly understandable why this lens is rated one of the best in the Canon lineup, and a standard for many sports and wildlife photographers. Until I make the jump, I’ll have to continue to get close to subjects without disturbing them to get clear shots … which is a large part of the fun – and helps to force me to really get the most out of my equipment and techniques.