Monday, June 26, 2017

A Bird's Heaven and A Birder's Paradise: Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility

Canada Geese over Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility

Dates: November 3, 11 and 12, 2016
Place: Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, California
Coordinates: 38.229431, -122.598254
Length: 4 miles
Level: easy

Last fall I scouted the North Bay in search of nice birding trails for our 4-H Hiking Project. I had my mind on the San Pedro NWR but thought I'd look around some more. A green spot on the map labeled 'Petaluma Marsh' grabbed my attention so I drove there. I couldn't find how to enter the place and soon was lost in some damp area that didn't look very inviting. I turned around and was making my way slowly back to the freeway when I saw an official looking pickup truck heading my way. As the truck approached I rolled down my window and hailed the driver, saying I was lost and asking for directions  to the Petaluma Marsh. The driver scratched his head, saying he wasn't familiar with any such place. Then his eyes lit up. "You must mean the Shollenberger Park," he said, and proceeded in giving me directions. It wasn't what I meant but I nodded anyway, seeing that I won't be getting to Petaluma Marsh that day. I was quite fine with checking out the Shollenberger Park instead.

I followed the instructions to the town of Petaluma and found the narrow road hidden between large industrial building that led to the park's parking lot.
After passing the reeds and brambles that block my view of the park the first thing I saw is a wide, shallow lagoon, flanked by reddish-brown wetland vegetation.
Shollenberger Lagoon
 An elderly birder approaches me and we engage in a small chat during which he points out to me a large bird on a human-made nesting box. It is a red-shouldered hawk and I am pleased to photograph it. That same hawk was present also a week later when I come back with my entire family, and Pappa Quail also took its photo, perched on a street light near the parking area.
Red-shouldered Hawk
The main trail of the park circumvents the large lagoon. I said goodbye to the birder and started going south, going counterclockwise around the lagoon.
Our hike on November 12, 2016, as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
A short distance into the hike I saw hidden in the hedge a narrow trail fork, leading west. I turned to check it out. The trail crosses a narrow creek and continues west toward the freeway. I stopped on the bridge and looked down: a single snowy egret was prowling the mud, foraging. It looked a bit different than other snowy egrets I've seen - its crest and tail had a rusty color that stood out against the white plumage. That individual was a resident there - I've seen its photos posted by others onthe California Birding page. Sure enough - it was still there when I arrived there a week later with my family.
Snowy Egret, 11/12/2016
I returned to the main trail and continued counterclockwise around the lagoon. The western side of the loop is somewhat removed from the water, separated by a flat area of grass and shrubs. Near the shrubs I could see the large ears of jackrabbits moving about in the tall grass. I tried focusing on the hares for a clear photo when I detected another small, gray animal, about the rabbit's size but without the long ears - a domestic cat. It didn't move, but its presence made for a nice rabbit photobomb.
Surprise Cat
Of course the nicer photo of a jackrabbit was taken by Pappa Quail on my following visit there at the time of which the cat was nowhere to be seen. 
Jack Rabbit

The western part of the loop reaches the Petaluma River, where I went on an observation deck over the water and looked across the water.
Petaluma River
There were a few mallards there, a great blue heron standing on a post protruding put of the water, and cormorants. The cormorants were still there on the following week.
Double-crested Cormorant, November 12
Pappa Quail didn't look just on the water but in the air too. On November 12 the water and the sky had the same color - a gloomy gray.
California Gull
Birds are clearly the main attraction of this place. But other creatures, even other winged creatures, are also present, and nice to see. 
A moth
The trail curves eastward and follows the river for a stretch. There were very few birds on the river itself - a coot, a few mallards and a couple of grebe. On the opposite bank however, I saw a family of mute swans: two adults and four, almost full-size young, still wearing their grayish youth plumage and bill. The photos I took didn't come out all that well, and by the following week when I returned with Pappa Quail, this swan family was no longer there.
The trail curved back north. I left the river bank and was walking on a levee between the lagoon and a large mud flat flanked with dry cattail and other wetland vegetation.

Naturally I started to search for rails. I even saw one but it was far and stayed among the reeds. Pappa Quail had better success on the following week, but even that was after a long and patient search.
Virginia Rail
The sora was a bit more yielding. Just a bit more.
While the lagoon to my west was mostly vacant, the mud flat to my east was teaming with waterfowl, waders, and an occasional turkey vulture.
Green-winged Teal and friends

A number of canals criss-crossed the mud flat, seen from above only as darker lines along the surface. Once at level with the canal I could see all the waterfowl that were casually swimming in it.

But then again, some waterfowl are just not short enough to inconspicuously remain below the mud surface. On the other hand, they have the benefit of seeing what's up before any of the other canal's residents.
Mute Swan, November 12
The lagoon on the west was mainly empty of waterfowl, but that meant a beautiful reflection to appreciate .

The water levels were quite low. At the time we had no foretelling of the wet winter to come, only the wake of a 5-years long drought.
Shollenberger Park Lagoon
The dry area between the vegetation belt and the water was empty when I was there on my solo hike. A week later, however, we saw there tow carnal representative of the highest Native American holy spirits - Coyote and Raven. I wonder what they were discussing at the time.
Raven and Coyote

When I arrived at the north segment of the lagoon-surrounding trail I needed to make a choice. A left turn would bring be back to the parking lot after completing the loop around the lagoon. To my right, however, was a trail connecting to the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (WRF), that according to the information sign posted at the trail intersection, was a worthy place to see.
A quick look at the time left - and my decision was made - I took the right turn.
The way to Ellis Creek Water Facility
The area between Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek facility and area of tall weeds and some human-planted trees among which several cottontail rabbits were hopping.
I also brought my family down this trail on my second visit there. A tiny hummingbird observed us from atop one of these small trees. There were hardly any flowers blooming at the time, and the few that did were dandelions and relatives, which do not offer nectar to hummingbirds. Yet the Anna's hummingbird overwinter in the area. It is a relatively new knowledge to me that these birds main food is in fact small insects. Nectar, apparently, is just their energy drink to supplement their animal protein meals.
Anna's Hummingbird
But I've seen there birds much better suited for flycatching, like this Say's phoebe that guarded the information post near the WRF pond.
Say's Phoebe
As I approached the pond I found another formidable hunter - a great egret that was ambushing some unsuspecting amphibian or rodent.
Egrets eat whatever they can catch. And they are lightning-quick catchers. Once I saw a great egret catching a hummingbird, plucking it from the air in mid-flight. This one in the photo below, however, remained still and didn't budge even as I walked past it on the nearby trail.
Great Egret
The water recycling facility has four ponds separated by levees and connected by underground pipes and pumps that move water from one pond to another. The ponds are surrounded by thick belts of tall tule, but at fairly regular intervals there are breaks in the tule that allow a look onto the pond itself.
I started my tour of the place around the largest pond. Each time I came by a tule gap I stopped and searched the water for fowl. Looking through one of the nearest gaps I saw a sora and a couple of couple of common gallinule. But the best photo I took there was of the tule reflection.
Pappa Quail did better with the gallinule on the following hike.
Common Gallinule
As I came upon a wider gap in in the tule I saw a family of mute swans, just like the one I saw earlier on the bank of the Petaluma River. It wasn't the same family, but the composition was the same: two adults and four maturing youth.
Mute Swans
Mute swans are an introduced species in North America, brought here for pond decorative purposes, and kept from flying by the awful practice of wing clipping. Swans, however, can also walk, and can certainly breed. Enough mute swans made their escape so that now feral mute swans can be seen in places, like at the Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek WRF.
One of the adults in the family I saw was a clipped-winged escapee. I couldn't tell that as long as the swans were swimming in the pond. At some point however, the swans took to the air: five of them did. The sixth one, the clipped adult, tried to take off too, only to sink miserably back to the water. Then I also found out that mute swans aren't really mute. I watched the flying parent and youth and listened to the parent left behind calling after them and my heart went out to it.
Mute Swans
The swans were there also on the following week and Pappa Quail took some nice close up photos of them.
No enchanted princess. A Mute Swan at the Ellis Creek WRF
It wasn't all about swans, though. Plenty of other birds enjoy the Ellis Creek ponds as well, and we got to enjoy watching them all.
Lesser Goldfinch, male
I was a bit short of time on my solo hike there, so I walked around one pond only. On my second visit there with my family we had more time to enjoy the ponds and walked around and between all four of them. 
On my way back to the Shollenberger Park I saw a northern harrier circling above. One harrier, and later on one kite. And that was all for non-scavenger raptors.
Northern Harrier

On our second hike there we a vulture standing behind the fence that separated the northern trail segment from the nearby buildings. The vulture was busy eating a possum that looked long time dead already.
Turkey Vulture eating a Possum
Walking back westward along the Shollenberger Lagoon I looked more closely at the small group of birds that were resting in a tight group near the northern shore.

Most of the sleepers were northern shoveler ducks.
Northern Shoveler

Here and there there were a few stilt too, standing or wading around the group.
Black-necked Stilt
We completed the loop around the Shollenberger Lagoon. The dray cattail and brambles that separated the trail from the street and the parking area was full of birds. Our second hike was later in the afternoon and all the red-winged blackbirds were settling in the thicket for the night and before going to sleep they were making the loudest and shrillest cacophony ever. 
But there was a great blue heron there too, and it was very quiet.
Great Blue Heron
On the lagoon side of the trail down below where the cattails were green Pappa Quail caught a marsh wren on camera. They sing really nice, but are not easy to spot, let alone to see.
Marsh Wren
Our family hike at the Shollenberger Park/Ellis Creek WRF was part of a family weekend out in the Novato-Petaluma area. On the Sunday following our hike there we went to explore some of the waterfalls near Novato, and we were done with that sooner than I had thought. I had no plan as to what to do next, so I suggested going back to the Ellis Creek facility to see the evening birds there. Pappa Quail and the elder chika agreed before I even finished my suggestion. So we went back there, this time parking right away at the Ellis Creek WRF.
Right there at the parking lot a California towhee was scratching in the leaves looking for some good eats. 
California Towhee
 Not far from there near the parking area still, a kite stood atop a small willow tree. A wary blackbird watched it really closely from behind.
White-tailed Kite
 We hiked slowly around the large pond, looking at the swans and ducks. I said to the others that it would be nice to see a bittern to complete our birrding experience of that place. Sure enough, within a few minutes, an American bittern jumped out of the tule near us and flew across the pond, settling in the tule on the other side. I took some time to see it there, but Pappa Quail found it right away.
American Bittern, November 12
 At the smaller ponds we split. Pappa Quail and the elder chika went around one pondwhile me and the younger chika went around another. Pappa Quail's pond was shallower and had some nice waders prowling it's water.
American Avocet
Avocets were many all throughout the park, but the yellowlegs is a more solitary bird. It too was wading the shallows in search of food.

We had a lovely and very peaceful evening stroll, enjoying the nice weather and the beatiful colors of the slowly setting sun. Blackbirds were coming in for the night, perching on tule and calling their shrill cries at the top of their lungs.
Red-winged Blackbird, male
Female red-winged blackbirds look so much like sparrows that they have an entry at the birder guide book right next to them.
Red-winged Blackbird, female, November 12

Everything that evening was mellow and peaceful, and the sun was setting in a beautiful color display. Then we noticed the clouds. Black clouds that were moving fast, and as Aragorn had said - not in the direction of the wind. These were starlings. Many, many starlings. Clouds of them, murmurating (yes, this is a real word). That means, flying in complete synchronization, all thousands of them. Here is a video I took of the murmuration:

Pappa Quail noticed something else and took a fully zoomed image: a peregrine falcon was flying among the starlings. It was flying in and out of the bird cloud, trying to capture dinner, no doubt.
Starlings, mumurating
Either the falcon wasn't giving it its best shot or that there really is safety in numbers and the starlings managed to confuse the falcon into going to bed hungry, but for all the time we observed the phenomenon, and that was until nightfall, the falcon hasn't managed to catch any starling. Moreover, while busy with the starlings the falcon had completely ignored other, solitary fowl the flew nearby.
Peregrine Falcon
The starling clouds converged on the facility ponds, flying over our heads. Like other clouds, these were dripping too, and not water. The chikas hurried and hid under the information sign while Pappa Quail and I braved the 'rain' and observed and photographed until nightfall. When the starlings finally settled in the tule we made our way in the dark back to the car and drove off to our hotel to shower off all the 'rain' marks.
Peregrine Falcon amid Starlings
Shollenberger Park and Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility are a bird haven and a birder's paradise.Now we know where to stop whenever we're in the area. If that nice fellow in the truck I had run into on November 3rd happens to read this post - many thanks to you!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Water on the Second Strike: The Barker Dam Nature Trail

Date: April 19, 2017
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California
Coordinates: 34.025096, -116.141996
Length: 1.6 miles
Level: easy

On our first visit to Joshua Tree National Park 14 years ago Pappa Quail and I also hiked the short and sweet Barker Dam Nature Trail. I don't remember much of that are except that it was hot and dry, and the sign posted by a dry lake prohibiting swimming. We found that sign amusing, therefore we documented it.
There was water there now, we heard people talking at the Barker Dam trailhead. It would've been disappointing if there wasn't, considering the copious amounts of rain that the area receives over the winter. So there was that to hope for.
I could tell already at the trailhead that this would be a rewarding hike. The bloom, just like at the Hidden Valley, was in abundance, and all over the place. even species that I haven't yet seen.
Gray Amsonia, Amsonia tomentosa 
Pappa Quail too found something to look at on the rocks near the trailhead: a pair of mourning doves in courtship.
Mourning Dove
After taking in the views near the parking lot we embarked on the short Barker Dam Nature Loop Trail. Like in Hidden Valley earlier that day, there were many other hikers on the trail with us, and capturing people-free scenery photos was somewhat challenging.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
To get to the loop we walked through a narrow gap between high granite rocks. We didn't see any climbers on these rocks but they were very pretty to look at, and seemed inviting for a climb.

We didn't do any climbing, but plenty of lizards did. we saw many lizards on that hike, energized by the warm sun.
Granite Spiny Lizard
The birds too were very active. It seemed that every yucca was claimed by a bird or a pair of birds, and the air waves were filled with their spring songs.
Black-throated Sparrow
I enjoyed the birds much, but my attention was mainly on the wildflowers along the way.  Even flowers I have seen plenty of already.
Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua

I have already seen plenty of the Mojave Buckwheat around for it is a very common plant. It was the first time on this road trip, however, that I saw one in full bloom.
Mojave Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum 
Another familiar plan that I can never get tired of seeing in bloom - the beavertail cactus. I love cacti any time of year but in bloom they transform like by magic from evil-looking spiny beings into gorgeous, festive 
Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris

We were walking slow. Slower even than our walk through Hidden Valley. Maybe it was all the people about us or the heat, but we did take our time on that trail. That gave me plenty of opportunities to explore more closely the wildflowers.
Rattlesnake Sandmat, Euphorbia albomarginata

As I was selecting photos for this post I found this one at Pappa Quail's folder. It took me a moment to realize it wasn't the Joshua Tree that Pappa Quail was after.
Costa's Hummingbird on his Joshua Tree perch
I was more focused on the down to earth yuccas. They were closer.
Mojave Yucca, Yucca schidigera
Despite uor slow pace it didn't take long to Arrive at the lake. And yes, there was water there. Pretty scuzzy, but water nonetheless, and mirroring perfectly the rocks beyond.
Bighorn (Barker) Lake
We lingered long by the lake. The chikas were looking for frogs (the elder chika even found one but it hopped away before I came over with the camera). Pappa Quail was looking for birds, of which there were plenty.
Lazuli Bunting, male
There were also many butterflies about, and then there was one butterfly less.
Say's Phoebe

Most of the shrubs by the water were willows but there were a few other species too, some of which were in bloom.
Mule Mat, Baccharis salicifolia
The willows looked pretty over the water and even more so when splayed on its surface.
Willow reflection
We looked for the  no swimming sign that we remembered from our first trip there but we didn't see it anywhere. I didn't think it was necessary. After all, who would want to swim in such a murky lake?
As we circled the water and went over the dam I saw two who would. They stripped down to their undergarments and went off for a swim. Perhaps it would be good to reinstate that sign. To protect the giardia microbs, naturally.
I averted my gaze from the swimmers and looked down below the dam's spillway. Down below was an old double, round water through that on out first visit was parched dry and now was full with water. Behind it the creek continued with a thin flow, then disappeared between the shrubs. Beyond that - the endless Mojave Desert.
The view southwest of Barker Dam
We descended from the dam down to the valley below. The short trail segment leading down meanders through a small rock garden featuring nice rounded granite and cushions of shrubs, many of which were blooming.

Down at the valley my family continued along the trail while I took a little detour to inspect the creek a bit closer. On the way there I saw these bushes that looked like they were flowering but on a closer look I saw these were fruit. The bushes were laden with them, and looked very pretty.
Burrowbush, Ambrosia salsola 
between the ambrosia bushes were other shrubs that were indeed blooming, and that I haven't yet seen in bloom. The flowers reminded me of tobacco and when I identified it I found it indeed to be of the nightshade family.
Peach Thorn, Lycium cooperi

The creek was just a narrow trickle, its path marked by the dense bloom of the yellow monkey flower.

These water-loving plants decorate many a creek bank throughout California. It was nice to see it in the heart of the desert as well.
Yellow Monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus
I finished exploring the creek, perhaps a bit too quickly, then hurried back to the trail to catch up with my family. They had not gone very far for they saw an interesting red plant hanging on another shrub and waited for me to tell them what it was.
Desert Mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum 
The mistletoe wasn't the only red bush in the area. It seems like for a plant to grab attention in the desert sporting intense red flowers, fruit or bracts would be the best way to go.
Hopsage, Grayia spinosa standing out on the desert backdrop
There were plenty of Joshua trees about, but despite the good winter none were blooming, nor bearing any buds. A Joshua tree splits new branches only at blooming apices so I guess none of these trees would branch this year. On the following day I hear a ranger talk to a group of people at the Mara Oasis Visitor Center, telling them that the Joshua trees need cold nights to induce bloom and these were lacking in the past years. It could also be the effect of the long drought preceding the one good winter that had drained these trees of their resources.
This one appeared to be dead, but for the little tuft of green nestled between the dried up shriveled branches.
Drought survivor 
We followed the trail until we reached the ridge of granite, and a rock standing apart that was a site of    petroglyphs inscribed by the native people of this place, the Chemuehevi. Sadly, many of the petroglyphs were vandalized, traced over with paint.

From the petroglyphs site we continued east along the granite ridge. This part of the trail reminded me a bit of the Hidden Valley.

There too, Pappa Quail was ahead with the chikas while me and Grandma Quail lingered behind, giving attention to all the wildflowers.
Chia Sage, Salvia columbariae 
I never fail to stop for blooming cacti. Especially cholla.

It was genuinely hot by then. Little lizards darted here and there along the path. And some of the lizards weren't so little.
Western Whiptail
I caught up with Pappa Quail near the completion of the loop. He stood still, focusing all his attention and also his camera on a nearby bare tree bearing two small thorny nests. A small colorful bird was moving between these nests, as if not sure which one to settle for. That was a verdin, and he looked very busy preparing a nursery. We didn't see any Mrs. verdin though. Maybe she was too shy, or maybe still at the wishful thinking stage.
We completed the loop and started back on the connecting trail through the gap of the granite rocks. There I got to see again all the plants I either missed or didn't give due attention on the way to the dam.

And some that I simply got better pictures of the second time around.
Fremont's Phacelia, Phacelia fremontii
Yes, there were some flowers that I had missed on the way out to the dam. Some surprisingly close to the trail too. I didn't miss them on the return, though!
Freckled Milkvetch, Astragalus lentiginosus 
Once again I found myself lagging behind. This time I stopped to look at a dry wash that the trail crossed.

A glimpse of color beaconed me and I left the trail and walked a few steps into the wash to inspect it closely. I saw several of these on the next day, but I recognized them by the foliage. This individual was the only one I've seen in bloom. It bears the most fitting cumbersome, and unimaginative name of, Hole in the Sand Plant.
Hole in the Sand Plant, Nicolletia occidentalis 
I returned to the trail and quickly covered the remaining distance to the parking lot. Myfamily was already in the car so I just took a quick goodbye photo of the pretty grass near the parking area and joined them inside.

Pappa Quail was very happy: he had photographed a bird of species he had never seen before on that trail. I look at his photo and I understand his passion, for there is no chance in the world I'd be able to recognize this sparrow as different from any other sparrow near my home .
Brewer's Sparrow
By the time we drove out of the Barker Dam parking area the sun was already on its way westward. We drove south, wishing to get to Cottonwood area and see the Ocotillo in bloom. And there was also the Cholla Garden we expected to stop at. So much to see in so little time! The Mojave Desert is indeed an amazing place.