Saturday, October 29, 2016

Social Media for Naturalists + Some Great Resources

I'm not much for social media; I take a minimalist approach and stick to the very basics.  (Does e-mail count?)  But within the past year or so, I've discovered a wealth of resources available online for the naturalist.  Some are more interactive than others, like traditional social media, and others are more useful for reference.  But I have found all of them to be valuable tools for sharing and gaining information, and wanted to share my favorites with you.

Top Five Online Resources for Naturalists

1. iNaturalist  (
iNaturalist is quickly gaining momentum in the citizen science   community, and is a wonderful photo-based tool for naturalists of all ages and skill levels.  Kids and families can participate, professors and researchers can participate; and everyone benefits. 

The concept is simple: download the app on your smartphone, or visit the website and set up an account (no smartphone necessary, though you do need a decent camera).  Photograph what you see when you're out exploring: plants, insects, birds, fungi, protozoans, whatever lifeforms catch your eye.  Upload the photos and tag your location.  Others will be able to see your photos and help with identifying what you've found if you're not able to do so.  All of your observation data is collected in one place; or you can sort by taxa.  You can also participate in individual projects; for example, I contribute to a project titled Central California Biodiversity.  Any observations I upload within the designated geographic range of the project contribute to that data set.  Since iNaturalist is all about photos, the key to using it effectively is to learn how to take decent pictures; your photos don't have to be stunning, but they do need to be recognizable.

Sample iNaturalist page

2. eBird  (

eBird is, as it sounds, just for birds.  I much prefer it over iNaturalist for birding as it doesn't require a photo for each entry, and the website organizes all of your data into personal "life lists," sorted by region.  It's a very efficient way to keep track of all those species!

Again, the concept is simple: go birding, or just identify a random bird sighting (Northern Mockingbird in the backyard, anyone?) and record it on your eBird account.  Tag your location, provide a few details such as time of day, and simply check the corresponding boxes, indicating the number of individuals you observed of each species.  The website pretty much does the rest.  If you're curious if other birders have seen a certain species in your area, use the species maps.  Type in a species, and zoom in to your area; markers will appear on the map indicating recent sightings of that species.  Another great feature eBird offers is the "hotspot" tool.  This feature lets you discover and explore "hotspots" in your area - places other birders have had success!  Find species maps and hotspot maps under the "Explore Data" tab on the website.

3.  Calflora  (

Calflora is a resource just for those of us in California, and just for plants.  It's sort of like eBird for botanists.
Like iNaturalist and eBird, you can search regions (by county) for certain species to get an idea of what's out there, contribute data, or get help with identifying a species.  Calflora allows you to enter your observations, like iNaturalist, but doesn't require a photo (though you're welcome to upload one).  I use Calflora mainly for narrowing down tricky ID's; I might enter the genus if I know it, or just select what category the plant falls into (grass, herb, shrub, etc.), indicate the county, and scroll through the photos, then read the descriptions to find a match.  It looks a little more scientific (read: complicated) but it's pretty user-friendly once you get a feel for it.
Calflora Homepage and search engine

4.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology  (

An absolute favorite.  I use this site almost daily.  It is the go-to resource for a wealth of bird-related information, access to the Macaulay Library of bird songs and calls, and the platform for other citizen science projects, like Nest Watch ( and Project Feeder Watch (  It is also directly linked to

Cornell's All About Birds is a well thought out and beautifully designed resource: everything you need, in one easy location.  From the homepage, scroll through the latest fascinating articles pertaining to birds, or type a species into the search bar and be on your way to all you ever wanted to know about North American birds.  From the bird species guides, you are able to listen to sounds of each species, compare photos of similar species, read about life histories, or browse though bird taxonomy.  The range map for each species is a little small, but below the map is a convenient link to eBird (which we already learned about), allowing you to zoom to your exact location to find out if a particular species has been seen recently in your area.  This tool is especially helpful during migration, when surprise visitors stop by unannounced!
All About Birds Homepage
(Aside: In my opinion, Plover chicks, including killdeer, are the most adorable baby birds out there.)
5.  The Feather Atlas  (

The Feather Atlas is a relatively recent addition to my arsenal of wildlife identification tools.  I discovered it by accident, while searching for a photograph of a Red Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) feather.  Needless to say, I found the photograph, and much more! 

This wonderful resource is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they have done a great job of creating a user-friendly database that anyone can access.  The easiest way to use the site for identification is to select the "Identify Feather" tool, and enter some information about the feather you found, like pattern and color.  You'll also need to measure the feather's length.  The results of your search will be a page of photos of feathers that match the description you provided; you can scroll through them to find the best match, based on size, shape, color and pattern.  Pay close attention to the scale along the left, looking for a feather that matches in size as well as pattern.  I've found the Feather Atlas to be quite easy to use, almost always providing an undoubtedly positive identification! 

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Heron in Crane's Clothing?

"Day 37.  The Cranes still do not suspect that I am a Heron.  The plan is working. 
I shall continue to blend in with their herd."

While birding at Merced National Wildlife Refuge, I came upon this rather amusing scene.  Well, amusing if you're a birder, I suppose... 

No great scientific insights here (other than to say that these two species, the Great Blue Heron and Sandhill Crane, can clearly co-exist quite peaceably).  Just a funny photo!

Oh, but as a side note, flocks of Sandhill Cranes really are called herds.  And the young are known as colts.  There are your facts for the day!  (I couldn't help myself.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Snowy Egret vs. Dragonfly

No surprise who won the match...

But it was surprising to look at my photos and realize what a lucky shot I'd gotten!

I photographed this Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) a couple of weeks ago at Merced National Wildlife Refuge, while it was enjoying an afternoon meal of dragonfly after an expertly-timed mid-air snatch at its prey. 

We usually picture egrets waiting at the water's edge to spear small fish, frogs and crustaceans, but they will dine on dragonfly as well, if it's on the menu!  And early fall is prime dragonfly season.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Whale Tales: Humpbacks at Monterey Bay

Two years ago, my husband took me on a whale watching cruise in Monterey Bay for my birthday.  It was late October, nearing the end of the migratory season and also the end of peak season for Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).  It rained all morning, right up until the time our boat left the dock; I insisted on sitting outside anyway, swathed in rain ponchos, right at the bow.

The sun came out soon, we ended up only slightly damp, and the two hours of seasickness were absolutely worth it!
Humpback whale fluke
Monterey Bay, a protected National Marine Sanctuary, is a first-class destination for year-round whale watching, as it is home to resident whales as well as hosts a wide range of migratory cetaceans.  Once on the brink of death, Monterey Bay is now a thriving ecosystem that has been slowly rehabilitated over the past several decades.  The hunting of sea otters to near-extinction had dramatic and far-reaching consequences for all life in the bay; the practice of whaling also had detrimental effects on the ecosystem and continued through much of the 1900's.  Today, the thriving bay, teeming with marine life, is a living testimony to the work of many dedicated researchers and conservationists. 

The tour guide on our whale watching cruise told us that these days, revenue brought in from whale watching cruises far exceeds the whaling profits of former times.
Another humpback whale fluke.
I didn't get any fantastic photographs of whales breaching (I didn't get any photos of breaching at all, actually) though we did see the humpbacks performing their iconic aerial acrobatics!  In addition to a large number of Humpback whales, we also saw Risso's Dolphins (Grampus griseus), California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus), Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina), and plenty of birds I didn't have the time to identify or photograph!
The humpback whale's namesake: it's hump.
If you're interested in whale watching in the Monterey Bay area, peak season for Humpback whales in Monterey Bay is between April and November; Gray whales are predominate from December to March.  Between August and October, Blue whales may be spotted as they stay close to shore on their migration south.  Minke whales, Fin whales, Sperm whales, Beaked whales and Orcas can also be seen in Monterey Bay throughout the year!  It's never a bad time for a naturalist at Monterey Bay!

Even if you whale watch from shore, you're sure to spot something exciting and perhaps even inspiring at Monterey Bay.
Bonus photo: A very photogenic Harbor Seal at Monterey Bay

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Black-crowned Night Herons at CSU Stanislaus

Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) are somewhat secretive wading birds, preferring to roost during the day and emerge at dusk.  Perhaps surprisingly, a few individuals can be seen around the ponds at CSU Stanislaus.  They are a favorite of mine, partially because they are more commonly associated with remote wetlands than with college campuses, and partially because they always look so perturbed at being discovered (not anthropomorphizing, I promise!)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) perched in a Gingko tree.
Not what you would expect: a Black-crowned Night Heron perched in a Gingko tree.  But so it is.  We often see the pair of Night Herons on campus roosting during the day deep inside a couple of Coast Redwoods (planted as ornamental trees in the lawn near a pond), which is also far from typical heron habitat.  Black-crowned Night Herons can be found in both saltwater and freshwater wetlands in California, as well as along streams, ponds and flooded agricultural fields.  They commonly nest and roost in trees or cattail reeds that provide cover and protection from predators.
Black-crowned Night Herons are believed to be monogamous.  Early this past spring, we noticed two herons hanging out together on campus at Stanislaus State.  During the summer, we were excited to discover that they were a breeding pair, and that they had been successful this year, as evidenced by a fully fledged juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron along the shores of Willow Lake.
Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron, on the hunt.
Hunting along the edge of a pond, the juvenile Night-crowned Heron blends in with its surroundings.  Juveniles will remain cryptically colored through their first winter.
Cryptic coloring of the juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron
The photo below shows how well the juvenile's camouflage works, as the white spots break up its shape and allow it to blend into the cattails along the edge of the pond.
Hunting at dusk, the juvenile blends in with its surroundings.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ruby-crowned Kinglet: An Inquisitive Winter Visitor

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) is a treat for anyone with the good fortune to spot one and the patience to track its movements through the trees for any length of time, for these tasks can be difficult!

The first thing you will notice about the Ruby-crowned Kinglet when you do finally spot one is that they hardly ever sit still!  Scarcely larger than a hummingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglets overflow with energy, flitting amongst branches, darting in and out of sight with agility and speed that is frustrating for the birder, and even more frustrating for the photographer!
A brief moment with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula).  Note the bright white wing bars and black patch
below the second wing bar.
But once you become acquainted with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, you will be charmed.  These birds can be recognized first by their tiny size; when identifying a kinglet, you may be able to eliminate the hummingbird and narrow down your options to bushtits, titmice, or kinglets.  Few other birds are so tiny.  Large eyes, accentuated by white eye rings, along with prominent white wing bars set against black bars, a greenish cast overall, and its habit of almost constantly flicking its wings will soon set this bird apart from any others.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet exhibits a thin beak, typical of insectivorous birds.
A very thin beak hints at this bird's diet.  Kinglets are insectivores, using their small beaks to glean insects from leaves and branches, sometimes hovering in midair for several seconds at a time, a little like a plump-looking hummingbird.
Note the plump body, virtually no neck and large eyes of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
I enjoy seeing Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the Central Valley during the winter.  These cool weather visitors spend the warm summer months at home in the forests of the Sierra Nevada where they breed, and migrate downslope to lower elevations as mountain temperatures drop.  Elsewhere, they breed across Alaska and Canada, preferring spruce-fir forests, and migrate to the Southern and Southeastern United States and Mexico during the winter.
A special glimpse of the male's often concealed "ruby crown."
The photo above is of the first Ruby-crowned Kinglet I encountered; he was a curious little fellow, visiting outside the window in December of 2014.  Looking back, it was a real treat to see his ruby crown, as most of the time the bright red feathers are hidden.  Males can raise and lower this crown by fluffing up their feathers, which is exactly what this bird was doing.  In fact, I'm guessing this particular bird saw his reflection in the window as either an opponent to challenge or a female to impress; either way, male Ruby-crowned Kinglets only display their beautiful crowns when they are in a state of excitement.  This little kinglet came back to the window several times during the day, and I was able to get two semi-decent photos as my first introduction to this delightful little bird.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Common Buckeye Butterfly

The Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) was one of the first butterfly species I learned to identify, when I was probably somewhere around junior high age.  They are common in central California, as well as across the Southern United States, and prefer open habitat with low vegetation and some bare ground, as well as good sun exposure.  This beautiful Buckeye was found along the Tuolumne River in the Waterford area.
Adult Common Buckeyes feed on nectar from a variety of plants, including composites such as aster, chicory and gumplant.  Larvae feed on the leaves of plants in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae) such as our native monkey flowers (Mimulus spp.).  The function of the prominent eyespots on the butterfly's wings is likely to startle would-be predators, giving the butterfly an extra second to escape.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Black-necked Stilts at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) are fairly common in California's Great Central Valley, a familiar little shorebird of shallow wetlands.  They are named for their distinctive black and white markings, though perhaps even more striking are their long, bright red-to-pink legs.  Black-necked Stilts are year-round residents of the Valley as well as the Central and Southern California coast, ranging farther north and inland into other western states during the summer months.
Stilts are designed for life in the shallows; their long legs allow them to wade into the water in order to find food, aquatic invertebrates, such as crawfish, beetles and brine shrimp, as well as small vertebrates like tadpoles and fish.  Using their long bills, stilts snatch their prey from the water.
Feeding behavior of the Black-necked Stilt (Himanoptus mexicanus)
Stilts nest on the ground, on soft substrate near water, where the male and female take turns excavating a small depression in which the female will lay her eggs; some nests are lined with grasses while others are not.

If you get a chance to venture out to one of our local wetlands this fall, keep an eye on the shallows and watch for these beautiful shorebirds.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Northern Mockingbird: An Ardent Songster

If you can't recall what the song of the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) sounds like, you need only hear one sing again in order to jog your memory.  It is a familiar song to many bird enthusiasts across the entire United States.
Northern Mockingbirds sing during the spring and summer to secure mates and during the fall to defend their feeding territory; often a male will have differing spring and fall songs.  Mockingbirds sing during the day, and unmated males will sing during the night as well, especially during a full moon.  What they lack in flashy plumage they more than make up for in colorful song!  Mockingbirds sing their own songs as well as mimic those of other birds.  A male mockingbird can learn up to 200 different songs in his lifetime.  It's an amusing sight to watch Scrub Jay calls come from a Mockingbird!

This particular Mockingbird was watching me work in the front yard, singing his heart out from the top of a shrub in true Mockingbird style.  These birds are anything but shy; they often choose prominent perches from which to sing, and flash bright white wing spots as they fly.  They're also tenacious little birds, not afraid to confront other birds, even mammals like house cats, in defense of their territory.  They don't hesitate to chase away other Mockingbirds (especially when a female is defending her nest) and readily give chase to larger birds as well.  Yesterday, I watched a Mockingbird noisily chase away a larger Yellow-billed Magpie.
I think I learned to recognize a Mockingbird by the time I was about four years old, along with Scrub Jays and Magpies.  This trio of species was common around our neighborhood, and growing up they became so familiar to me that they just sort of faded into the background.  But all three species are beautiful, clever, adaptable birds and they deserve more appreciation than they usually receive.  So next time you hear that familiar song, look around for a smallish gray bird perched in a conspicuous spot and remember it's never wasted time to stop and listen to a Mockingbird sing!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Common Sparrow ID tips

Sparrows can be an intimidating group for beginning birders.  They're little, they're fast, they're flighty... and they're all brown!  How can one even begin to tell them all apart?

The Great Central Valley supports an impressive array of little brown sparrows (often lumped in with wrens and finches and dismissed as "Little Brown Jobs"), but there is hope for the new birder!  Pick up a good field guide, and start narrowing your options down by season and by habitat.  For example, determine which species are likely to be in the Central Valley in the winter only.  You'll be left with a shorter list of potential species after a process of elimination.

An excellent tool is eBird's Bar Chart feature.  This allows you to select a county (or multiple counties) and displays a chart of monthly (weekly, actually) occurrences for all of the species recorded in that region.  This is an excellent way to become familiar with what species are in your area at different times of the year.

Another good tip is to learn the most common species backwards and forwards.  I suggest getting to know the English Sparrow (Passer domesticus) first - although they're not sparrows in the true sense, but rather a type of Old World sparrow introduced from Europe in the 1800's.  (Some ornithologists classify them as weaver finches, some argue otherwise.)  Turns out they like it here; they are everywhere, the ubiquitous little brown birds of cities, suburbia, and fast food parking lots. 

Once you are acquainted with English Sparrows (also called House Sparrows), you will be better equipped to distinguish between the imposters and our true native sparrows. 

Because they're so common (read: "boring"), I had never photographed an English Sparrow until today; I popped outside and found a male hiding out in a bush just outside the door.  I told you, they're basically everywhere.

English Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The first native sparrow you ought to learn is the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), distinct with its prominent black-and-white striped head, and common enough to frequent bird feeders during the winter months.

The White-crowned was the first native sparrow I learned to identify, watching them at birdfeeders during the winter.  In the summer, they can be found in the Sierra Nevada and northern parts of the state; they remain along the Central Coast year-round.

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
The second native sparrow you might consider familiarizing yourself with is the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), a year-round resident of Central Valley grasslands.  It can be found nearly everywhere else in California as well, except for the High Sierra and the deserts.  A good field mark to look for in the Song Sparrow is a dark central chest spot, set at what sometimes appears to be the convergence of streaks on its breast.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
As you might guess, the Song Sparrow sings a lovely song.  Visit Cornell University's All About Birds to listen to a Song Sparrow sing.

So there's your assignment: make the acquaintance of our invasive imposter "sparrow," then learn to recognize two of our most familiar and beautiful native sparrows, and you'll be well on your way to identifying more of the little brown birds you see in the field!

Once you feel comfortable with these sparrows, try your hand at a few others:
Lincoln's Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Bell's Sparrow

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sandhill Cranes are back at Merced National Wildlife Refuge!

The Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis, formerly Grus canadensis) have arrived in the Great Central Valley!  They've been here for a couple of weeks now, though I was just recently able to get out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see them.  And what an incredible sight!  The return of the cranes is an annual event in the Valley, much anticipated by many local birders and nature enthusiasts.  In fact, all of the bird species that spend the winter here give us plenty of reasons to look forward to the upcoming cold months.  There may not be snow in the Valley, but nothing quite compares to a sky filled with thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese!  (The snow geese aren't here yet, but they soon will be!)

If you think Sandhill Cranes look prehistoric, a bit like small dinosaurs roaming the grassland, you aren't too far off: the oldest Sandhill Crane fossil is a remarkable 2.5 million years old!  And if you're a resident of the Central Valley, these modern dinosaurs live almost in your backyard!

There are several subspecies of Sandhill Crane, and two spend the winter in California's Great Central Valley: the Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes.  Northeastern California also supports a breeding population of Greater Sandhill Cranes during the summer; Lesser Sandhill Cranes breed in the Arctic, including northeastern Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada.  The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is the seasonal home for the largest wintering population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes in the Pacific Flyway, with up to 20,000 cranes in residence between October and February!

Greater Sandhill Cranes, which nest in temperate regions, are the larger of the two subspecies found in California, as one would guess by the name; they stand an average of 4.5 to 5 feet tall, and weigh between 10 and 14 pounds.  Arctic-nesting Lesser Sandhill Cranes, most of the birds you will see at Merced National Wildlife Refuge, are smaller, standing between 3 and 3.5 feet tall and weighing only 6 or 7 pounds.

Both male and female Sandhill Cranes have a distinct red "cap" on their heads, and silvery gray plumage.  Individuals lacking the conspicuous red caps are juveniles, entering into their first winter.

Cranes of all species are well known for their elaborate and graceful courtship dances, and the dance of the Sandhill Crane is no exception.  Though they save their best dances for the breeding season, Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and will dance with their partner throughout the year, leaping and bowing, sometimes even tossing small stones or tufts of grass into the air. 

Watching the cranes perform their graceful maneuvers is a real treat, giving one the sense of witnessing something timeless, ancient, even primeval. 

My first experience with Sandhill Cranes was shortly after college.  I wanted to see the visiting cranes, so my husband (then boyfriend) Eric and I took a drive up to the Cosumnes River Preserve near Galt in the fall.  While taking the "scenic route" home down a levee road (confession time: we took a wrong turn somewhere) we found ourselves in the middle of  a flooded rice field and a large flock of Sandhill Cranes.  It was magical, and I was hooked.  Go find a flock of these majestic, prehistoric birds for yourself, and you'll see what I mean!


Sunday, October 9, 2016

What is a Naturalist?

If you've heard someone referred to as a "naturalist," you might have wondered just what exactly that meant.  An unshaven John Muir-like figure?  Someone living chained to a redwood tree?  A contemplative observer, the reflective Thoreau type?  A scientist?  A hippy?  Just what is a naturalist?

The definition of a naturalist is "an expert in or student of natural history."  And natural history can be described as the scientific study of plants and animals, based primarily on observation.  In my definition, I would add the study of geology as well.  Synonyms for a naturalist include natural historian, wildlife expert, and a number of scientific-sounding titles: ecologist, biologist, zoologist, botanist, environmentalist.
A Naturalist at work (or play), in Joshua Tree National Park
 But don't let that deter you!  You need not have a degree in science to be a naturalist!  Children can be naturalists.  Retired folks can become naturalists.  Being a naturalist can be anything from a hobby to a full-time profession.

Being a naturalist means having a love of nature and passion for its conservation, plus a little more: it means paying attention to the daily and seasonal rhythms of the natural world, and having the desire to learn not only the names of species, but their life histories as well.  Naturalists can tell you more than the name of a bird.  They can tell you about annual migratory patterns, breeding cycles, and feeding habits. 
Tools of a Naturalist
Naturalists are, perhaps above all, curious.  They want to know things, like where the sparrows go in the winter, what formed a particular rock, when the lupines bloom.  To find the answers, they observe and they read and they ask questions.  Naturalists are observant, perceptive, and patient.  They tend to be quiet and contemplative, but hardy folk not deterred by inclement weather or dirt.  Naturalists are also systematic and organized, at least to some degree!  Records are valuable: field notes, photographs and the like.

Being a good naturalist requires little more than curiosity and observation.  But a few tools are useful in the field, such as a notebook, field guide, camera and binoculars.  It's always helpful to take ample photos, as well as sketch and describe what you see.  At home, the accomplished naturalist will have a well-used collection of reference books and field guides, as well as a collection of interesting specimens acquired over time.*
A collection of field guides and reference books, packed up and ready for a trip to the desert.
I encourage you to be an naturalist.  Be curious, explore, observe the natural world.  Notice things, like the birds in your yard and what wildflowers bloom during each season.  There's no need to venture deep into the wilderness if you'd rather not; you can study nature at a local park, or visit a natural history museum.  All it takes is a little time to slow down and notice what is around you to gain an appreciation for our beautiful, fragile environment. 

So take a little time, pick up a field guide and head outside.  You might be surprised at what you discover!

*Note: Please NEVER collect anything on protected land, including but not limited to National and State Parks.  Be aware of the rarity of a specimen and ecological significance of removing it from the environment before you do so.  And be selective: when you do collect, take only what you need and know will be useful to you.  Leave the rest where you found it and be content with a good photo.