Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Starting the New Year on the Right Wing: A Birding Walk at the Cosumnes River Preserve

Date: January 1, 2020
Place: Cosumnes River Preserve, Galt, California
Coordinates: 38.265874, -121.439240
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

On the first morning of 2020 we checked out of our hotel in Jackson after a few days at the Gold Country with extended family who came to spend the winter break with us. On the last day of 2019 I took most of our family group up to the snow while Pappa Quail and Grandma Quail went separately to check out the nature preserves down in the valley. In the evening when we regrouped Pappa Quail simply announced that on New Year's Day we will be going all of us to two of the birding places he and his mother has been to that day. One of these places would be the Cosumnes River Preserve.
(Most of the photos here were taken on 1/1/2020 but I added a few that Pappa Quail took on his mom and son hike the day before.)
Our Hike as captured by my GPS
It was already late in the morning when we arrived at the parking lot of the Cosumnes River Preserve, and found it nearly completely full. The nice day attracted many birders, hikers, and other people who wanted to spend the first day of 2020 in Nature.
We circled the parking lot twice before finding space. Then Pappa Quail ushered us promptly to the trailhead, behind the visitor center. There we crossed a slough on a foot bridge. We paused on the bridge to look for birds. I looked down but the water was invisible under a thick layer of vegetation, red for winder.
The Middle Slough
The Cosumnes River is the only Sierra Nevada west-flowing river that isn't dammed. The natural flow seasonally floods areas in the valley that are not diked off. Nowadays the flooding of the Preserve fields are managed.

On the other side of the bridge we came upon a flooded area. At first glance it looked empty. When we approached however, we spotted a few ducks - northern pintail duck.  
Northern Pintail
What was lacking on the water was compensated in the air. Large flocks of birds dotted the blue sky and filled the air with their cries. Many were geese, but we could here crane calls too.
Geese in the Sky
Geese fly in large flocks. Raptors fly alone. Red-tailed hawks are common in the area and, sure enough, Pappa Quail spotted one circling the sky above.
Red-tailed Hawk
We walked very slowly on the cement path along the shore of the flooded field. I admit I wasn't as attentive to Nature as I normally am on hikes. I was enjoying the company of family members I don't get to see very often.
Pappa Quail wasn't distracted. He hound a vulture too.
Turkey Vulture
After leaving the pond side the path continued as a boardwalk into an open forest of valley oaks in their winter wear. The soft sunlight sifted through the bare canopies and one by one coats and sweaters were taken off.

A quick motion at the top of one of the oaks was detected and soon Pappa Quail and the elder chika had their cameras trained on that spot, following the action of a downy woodpecker busying about.
Downy Woodpecker
New Year's Day is hardly considered spring time in Northern California but that didn't bother the squirrels who were running around chasing each other with full springtime energies. We watched with amusement four squirrels who were in a hot chase after one another. Eventually one of them did catch the leader and the two made springtime happen right before our eyes.
Eastern Fox Squirrels
As we moved along the path I noticed that the oaks were growing in neat rows like in an orchard. Other, less botanically inclined members of my family noticed it too. These oaks are native to this area, but they were all approximately the same size and very orderly spaced - clearly they were planted there. I assume it is part of a rehabilitation process of this area.
Valley Oaks, Quercus lobata
The valley oak is a keystone species in the California Central Valley, providing habitat for a plethora of animal species and other beings. These trees can grow to a massive size (I've seen some huge ones at the Bobelaine Audubon Sanctuary last November). Here at the Cosumnes Preserve, the planted oaks were still pretty young. Small as they were, they were already fulfilling their role as home to plenty of little bush birds that in turn, kept the birders in my family very happy.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 12/31/2019
There are two species of kinglets in California. The ruby-crowned in the top photo is the one we usually see. The other one, the golden-crowned kinglet had eluded my birders for the longest time until they finally spotted one on the Sauk Mountain Trail in Washington last summer.
Guess what, the busy birders found one right there at the Cosumnes Preserve!
Golden-crowned Kinglet
The wide blue band of sky was like a huge high definition screen through which passed flock after flock of birds. The geese were easy enough to tell by their size and the beautiful arrowhead formation.
Geese in flight
In a less orderly flight but much noisier than the geese (if that was even possible) were the sandhill cranes. Later that day we would see them up close in the fields of Staten Island.
Sandhill Cranes
We followed the trail as it led us next to the slough. In the water - mallards only. The family group progressed slowly and stretched over a good length of the path, like colorful beads strung on the gray strip of cement. I paused, waiting for everyone to regroup, gazing at the reflection in the calm water.
Middle Slough
Eventually we crossed the river again back to the road side, some distance away from the visitor center. There we crossed the road as well, and followed the trail to the flooded fields on the west side of the preserve.
There, higher above as I usually see them, little tree swallows performed fast aerobatics, catching bugs in the air.
Tree Swallow
The fields west of the road were fully flooded and the grass along their banks was lush and green. I imagined this scene stretching on and on all the way to the horizon as it used to be before the draining of the Delta. It's easy enough to do in a completely flat landscape.
Cosumnes River Preserve
The flooded fields are very shallow with many vegetation bars or islands where birds can rest in relative safety. A snipe was foraging on one of these islands off shore. It moved slowly in and out of the vegetation, its plumage pattern blending nicely in the background.
Wilson's Snipe
Other shorebirds were more in the open, confidently poking through the mud in search of morsels. 
Greater Yellowlegs
Red-winged blackbirds were very active all over the place. Unlike the squirrels however, springtime hasn't come around for them yet - they were all very silent. The shrill song of the male red-winged blackbird that fills the airwaves in spring was noticeably missing.
Red-winged Blackbird
The trail forks off into the flooded field. Right by the junction the preserve's docents and volunteers set up a table with a beautiful display of information and observation stations with telescopes trained on the waterfowl in the ponds and microscopes with water samples containing little water critters that can be found in the flooded area. Needless to say, we had a very long stop there to look at everything. I also tried taking pictures of the water bugs, taking the chance to look closer at life that I don't usually stop to appreciate during my hikes.
Daphnia, copepod, and shrimp 
I don't know the names of all these creatures. If I find out later on I'll update here. Many of these were crustaceans. Others were insects - both mature and larvae.
It was very cool to see how much life flourishes right below the water surface. It is a clear indication of the health of the water in the preserve.
The wealth of invertebrate life in the flooded fields also provide food for the birds of the preserve, both resident and seasonal visitors.
At first I though that the samples where concentrated on purpose but after I finally detached myself from the display table and moved down the trail into the ponds area I looked down at the water and saw that this was indeed the actual concentration of critters in the water. Probably denser. I sat there for some time, looking into the water, mesmerized. I couldn't see deeper than 2 inches down because it was so dense.
Wetland life
When I realized I was on my own I got up on my feet and chased my family down the path through the flooded ponds.

Most of the vegetation in the flooded area was herbaceous but in one place the boardwalk trail passes between shrubs.
I walked past quickly because the shrubs obstructed the view of the fields but Pappa Quail found his subjects of interest right there in those bushes.
Orange-crowned Warbler ssp. orestera
On the day before he found there in the bushes a pretty warbler in black and white plumage. It was overcast that day so the photo itself looks like black and white.
Black-throated Gray Warbler, male. Photo taken on 12/31/2019
That almost black and white photo of the warbler enticed me to do something I don't usually do - I chose one of my nicer view photos of the ponds and turned it black and white, for art's sake. I think it turned out pretty :-)

In color of course, the area looks alive and not as if taken from an old landscape photography book.
At the end of the intra-pond trail was a large, rounded observation deck. There were many people standing there, gazing at the water. So did we.
Cosumnes River Preserve
Most of the time I simply gazed or otherwise engaged in chats with my family. Pappa Quail and the elder chika however, were busy birdwatching.
Black Phoebe
We returned from the ponds backtracking on the same boardwalk back to the display table. From there it was a short distance along the shore to the visitor center where we parked. Still, this short stretch of paved trail took us a long time to walk because there was so much to see.
White-fronted Geese 
White fronted geese where by large the most common bird in the preserve on the day we were there. There were literally everywhere - on shore, in the air and in the water. Many of them were resting, others were foraging using the 'bottoms up' method of sifting though the muck for all those nourishing goodies the bottom.
White-fronted Goose. Photo taken on 12/31/2019
There were many ducks in the water as well. Mallards, which are the most common duck most times of the year were actually a minority when we were there. Wintering ducks where plenty.
Cinnamon Teal. Photo taken on 12/31/2019
A few of these photos were taken by Pappa Quail on the previous day. Apparently there were more ducks and they were closer. I assume that was because there were less people there as well.
Green-winged Teal
Grandma Quail wondered where were all the ducks they've seen yesterday. The rest of my family however, didn't feel deprived. Either way, there was plenty to look at.
Ring-necked Duck, female and 3 males. Photo taken on 12/31/2019
We progressed at a crawling speed toward the end of our hike and I looked back in time to see a large flock of blackbirds swirling in the air.

I stirred out of my reverie to the sound of excitement talk from Pappa Quail and the elder chika - apparently they spotted an unusual duck. I looked at where they were pointing at but all I saw was a group of northern shovelers, a very common duck overwintering in California. 
Northern Shoveler, From left to right: female, male, hybrid male
Immediately I was educated by my very excited chika - among the shovelers was a duck that was a hybrid between a northern shoveler and a blue-winged teal. A cross species hybrid. Apparently that happens every now and then.
Hybrid of Northern Shoveler and a Blue-winged Teal. Male
What was more unusual was that it was the second duck hybrid that my elder chika had recently identified. The other one was a hybrid between an Eurasian wigeon and an and American wigeon that she'd seen last November at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.
Come to think of it, it was she who also noticed the unusual couple of a make wood duck and a female mallard way back in 2013 at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve. She has a good eye for these things.

We continued on toward the visitor center. A closed to the public trail extended westward between ponds and on the sign stood a small brown bird - a juvenile American pippit. I called Pappa Quail's attention to this bird, and that was the last bird I paid attention to on this hike.
American Pipit
I did like the sight of the mistletoe balls hanging on the bare-leaved trees between the trail and the road. Mistletoe doesn't senesce during winter.

The first time I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve was when we participated for the second time at the Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival. At that time however, we were brought in with a group by a bus to see the crane fly-in at sundown and didn't hike at all there. This time we were there at broad day light. The only cranes we saw there were up in the sky, but we got to see many other birds on their daily activities and we got educated by the preserve's staff on the local ecology, which is very fascinating. And we had a lovely, easy and beautiful hike that all parts of my family had enjoyed, and gave it a big thumbs up.
At the end of our hike we took a little more time to check out the display at the visitor center and to report our findings before heading off for lunch. It was a wonderful start of the new year.


  1. this is indeed a great way to start the new year.
    The cranes are the loudest birds I know..
    the black and white picture is beautiful.
    the chicka is simply amazing :-)

    1. Cosumnes River Preserve is one of those gems saved from the ever developing agriculture in the delta. There are so few of these around. Thank you, it was indeed a great start of the year!

  2. beautiful hike :-)
    great catch of the squirrels...

    1. Yes, we got lucky :-) Both with the hike and with the squirrels ...