Saturday, November 22, 2008

Turkey Trot

Wow, it’s not a good time to be a turkey!

Of course you know there is a vast difference between the turkey that hits your table on Thanksgiving Day and the wild turkey. What you might not be aware of is that turkeys are not native to the western states. Back in the days of the pilgrims these birds were abundant in the eastern forests. A truly American bird, they were found only on this continent until the 1600’s when the Spanish explorers took a few birds back to Spain where they bred and expanded. In fact this bird was so American that good old Ben Franklin proposed it be chosen as the national bird and symbol of our country instead of the eagle. Time and extensive hunting practically wiped out the species until massive conservation efforts were put in place. Thanks to transplantation, wild turkeys are now in all the states except Alaska.

These are the largest game birds in North America. They stand about four feet tall and can reach up to 24 pounds. There are gobblers or Toms, hens, Jakes (first year males) and Jennys (first year females). Gobblers are adult males that have bronzy, iridescent body plumage with black tipped breast feathers. Another characteristic of males is the “beard” that protrudes from the breast. They also have an upward curving spur on the lower legs. Gobblers have less head feathers than hens. Hens are smaller birds with light-brown breast feather tips. Hens sometimes develop beards too but they are always smaller and thinner than a gobbler’s.

There are five races or sub-species of wild turkeys in the United States. Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Gould’s, and Merriam’s. Merriam’s turkeys are the ones you will see in California. They are distinguished from the others by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail margin.

Adult males have a distinctive mating call – “gobble, gobble.” The head of the aroused gobbler becomes a combination of red, white and blue – pretty patriotic when you think about it.

Male turkeys have other interesting characteristics such as the Snood or Dewbill, a drooping apparatus that hangs down over the beak, and the wattle, a bright red loose bunch of skin hanging from under the beak to just above the beard. Apparently the only function of these items is to cause hens to swoon. A male turkey can change his head from red to blue in minutes and the climax of his performance is when he fans out his tail and puffs up his body feathers to appear huge and round. This just about clinches it for the lady turkeys. Lovemaking is bound to ensue!

Eight to 12 eggs are laid and begin hatching in 28 days. The young are capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching.

Wild turkeys form into flocks based on sex and age. The brood (hen and her poults) forms into hen-brood flocks. Adult males form flocks that rarely associate with hens until breeding season. Young males separate from the brood and form Jake flocks.

Domestic turkeys couldn’t be more different from their wild cousins. They are larger (can weigh up to 75 lbs.) and gain weight quickly. This is not due to hormones or drugs but is a factor of breeding. Domestics are white in color and cannot change their head color. Their snoods are always red. And poor beasts, they are unable to breed, a consequence of having developed over-sized barrel chests that don’t allow the birds to get close enough to mate. Artificial insemination produces all the domestic turkey flocks. Did you know there are two types of domestic turkey – the female line consists of males and females, whose job it is to produce eggs, and the male line, also made up of males and females that are bred to produce meat.

Dumbness is equated with being a turkey but this is only true for the domestic variety. Wild birds are very wily and wary. Ask any hunter. The domestics are so passive they don’t even know enough to come in out of the rain and there are documented cases of turkeys drowning in a downpour.

The biggest difference between domestic and wild birds is that only the wild ones can fly. They don’t much like to but they can, quite well. They can clear a 60-foot tree within 100 feet of takeoff and travel several miles at 50 miles per hour.

The turkey is a successful bird in every sense both in the wild and in the supermarket. Nowadays most of the products on the store shelves are made of turkey – turkey ham, turkey bacon, and turkey pastrami.

So on Thanksgiving Day while you are enjoying that turkey leg or breast, remember the great contribution this very American bird brings to us -- food for our table and a pleasure to watch in the wild.


Turkeys have made a big comeback in Califor
nia and are seen far and wide on farms and ranches and sometimes even in town!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mosquito Hell

If the issue of global warming was ever in question in my mind it was answered on my recent bird photography trip to the national wildlife refuges of the Central Valley of California. It is for certain upon us with all its accompanied plagues.

How do I know this? Never before in the 40 years I have wandered the wilds of this state during the autumn months has the weather been this warm. By now there should have been rainstorms to replenish the waterways that drain into the reclaimed wetlands. By now the nighttime temperatures should have dipped into the teens in the interior valleys and the daytime highs should be reaching no more than the mid-50 degrees or low 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But that is not the case this year and it hasn't been so for several years past.

So it was that a friend and I traveled north and east the first week of November in trepidation for we had been warned already, there were mosquitoes at the refuges.

"It can't be," I told my friend, "I've never seen mosquitoes there. Gnats sometimes, but not mosquitoes." I would later eat those words along with a few mosquito morsels.

We arrived late in the afternoon after a long drive and checked into our motel, reconfigured our gear and outer wear, and piled back into the car to dash off to the nearest wetland area.

This section is marked by large ponds of varying depths that are part of the Grasslands Ecological Area just north of Los Banos, California. An odd assortment of structures line the dirt road on either side through the area where duck hunting club members stake out during the waterfowl hunting season. I have no objection to the hunters, who I find for the most part to be cordial and friendly and have on occasion supplied me with leads as to the whereabouts of abundant flocks of ducks and geese. It's these guys who pay the fees that enable the state to continue to replenish wetlands that have been almost 90% destroyed in California.

The light was fading fast as we drove slowly down the lane. Ponds on both sides showed forms of ducks, shorebirds, and the ever-present ubiquitous coots. Too late for photos, we were using this foray as a reconnaissance for the next morning. We kept scanning the ponds with our binoculars as we inched along. In trying to identify one small bird we stupidly opened the windows. Immediately we were hit with the blast of hundreds of little buzzing insects flying about inside the car. "Mosquitoes!" we both screamed and dove for the button to close the windows.

What is it about being swarmed by little flying bugs? You instantly begin to itch. In between scratching we swatted at the aerobatic dive bombers until the dashboard was littered with carcasses. By this time the sun was really gone and we couldn't make out the figures on the ponds so we headed back to the motel to find some food. We ate quietly at the local Denny's both thinking the same thing. What would tomorrow morning bring? More mosquitoes?

Birding and bird photography requires an early rising. The alarm went off at 5 A.M. and we tumbled out of bed, brewed the in-room coffee and consumed some oatmeal gruel while we pulled on our clothes and gathered up our gear.

Out on the road huge blankets of fog reached across the fields to swallow us on the tiny country road. Suddenly a huge orange globe appeared on the horizon through the mists. We pulled off to the side of the road for a good photo opportunity. As we exited the car to photograph the sunrise, we stared at each other. There were no bugs!

We got to the refuge as geese were taking to the skies to fan out over the countryside in search of lucrative grain fields. We were encouraged that there still was no sight of anything else flying about except birds.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge is one of three national refuges in the area and while it is the smallest it always offers the best assortment of bird life with huge flocks of snow geese and large rafters of sandhill cranes that often number over 10,000 birds. A six-mile auto tour route offers the best opportunity to obtain good photographs while using the car as a blind. In the three hours we spent at the refuge we found ponds full of northern shovelers, pintails, gadwalls, and mallards as well as greater white-fronted geese, white pelicans, snow geese, sandhill cranes, white-faced ibis, great blue herons, and of course, coots. Killdeer raced up and down the side of the dirt road and American pipits flitted by us. A red-tail hawk played cat and mouse along the way and in the distance we watched two northern harriers cruising.

About three-quarters of the way around the route there is a trail and an overlook. Here black phoebes perched in the trees and other small birds eluded us. A large flock of greater white-fronted geese were milling in the water and suddenly took flight giving us good shots of them flying overhead.

The sandhill cranes were not abundant. The usual group that mills about on the open grassland at the end of the auto route was not present. But it was early in the season and not yet cold enough anywhere for them to make their way more to the south. We made note to return for our usual trip here in February when the large concentrations of cranes should be present.

By now it was mid-morning but we decided to stop at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge anyway to see what we might see. The temperature had risen. It was already too warm. As we made our way around this larger refuge on the auto tour route we started to hear the buzzing once again and soon the car had too many flitting insects inside. We closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning. There would be no photo taking here.

"I feel like I'm back in New Jersey," I said. "I can't remember a time when I've ever seen this many mosquitoes in California."

Global warming? Well, today I am sitting in Morro Bay. It is mid-November. The temperature is hovering around 80 degrees. Do I think this is global warming? Yes. There certainly is something very, very wrong with our climate. Morro Bay rarely gets this warm even at the height of summer and by this time of year we should be enjoying those crisp fall days that invigorate the soul. We're in trouble folks. It's mosquito hell!


Greater white-fronted geese


American Coots

American Pipit

White-Faced Ibis

Sandhill Cranes

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fall Color in California?

We yearned for color – those of us who originally hailed from the shores of the Atlantic missed the yearly autumn display. We wanted to see trees of lemon yellow and crimson red. But we live in Central California and what leaf changes we have here never live up to those memories we hold of the splashy show of the northeast trees. What to do? Take a bus trip north to Plumas County.

We were on the road early on a bright sunny morning in early October with plans to tour and have lunch at the Stewart & Jasper Almond Ranch in Newman, California.
The ranch is a third generation family business that farms more than 3000 acres of nuts and fruits. We watched as assembly line people quickly plucked reject almonds from a moving belt loaded with nuts. After our tour we enjoyed a tasty lunch and spent some time shopping in the gift store.

Overnight was in Oroville and early the next morning we set off up Highway 70, a spectacular scenic drive along the Feather River. The section between Oroville and Quincy is known as the Feather River National Scenic Byway and words to describe the route cannot do it justice. The river, which tumbles over huge boulders, is thousands of feet straight down from the road for most of the drive. People suffering from height phobias may have trouble on this route, but no one can deny its beauty. Waterfalls tumble down the cliff sides and as the elevation climbs we began to see some change of color in the foliage.

The railroad makes it way up this canyon too and was cause for some interesting engineering feats in the building of the line and placement of bridge overpasses. The historic Pulga and Tobin bridges are an example. One is a highway bridge that crosses over a Western Pacific Railroad bridge. Its said to be one of the most photographed sites, but on narrow Highway 70 there is no place for a 40 foot bus to pull over for those of us with cameras to get a shot.

We did get a chance to photograph the river and another Tobin bridge after we descended from the heights and could park in a large open space adjacent to the river. Here a small waterfall cascaded down the hillside into the boulder-strewn water. There was just a hint of color change in the trees but a large scar of previously burned area also was evident. This past fire season a large brush and forest fire consumed many acres in this northern California section.

Logging is still an active industry up here and we saw many large trucks loaded with huge logs barreling up and down the highway. Most of the small towns in the area support the logging industry.

Lunch was in one of these small towns, Mill Creek, at St. Bernard's Lodge. Lunch was great but the best thing was looking at all the artifacts in this old fashioned bed and breakfast. The property contains a small pond and a larger body of water adjacent to it where mallards and domestic ducks paddle back and forth. The pond is stocked with huge rainbow trout. This stop was one place where some nice fall foliage was evident but the dog that the place was named after never showed.

Our tour continued around Lake Almanor, the largest lake in Plumas County. We stopped to admire a nice flock of white pelicans that were floating on the water. Lake Almanor has 52 miles of shoreline and is a popular recreation spot.

Railroads have played a big part of this area's history and part of our trip was railroad oriented. At Greenville, while searching for a restroom break spot, we stumbled upon and old depot building next to a line of tracks. And all up and down Highway 70 we encountered long lines of freight trains snaking their way along the canyon ledges and through the massive tunnels that railway workers had blasted out of the mountainsides. In some places the track loops over itself in order for the trains to gain in elevation along the canyon walls.

The Western Pacific Railroad finished building their line across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1909 and was the last transcontinental railway built. Their history and a grand assortment of rolling stock are available to the public at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum at Portola and this was a must-see stop for our tour. Here members of the Feather River Rail Society preserve rail history in a large building housing many artifacts, photos, and equipment. Outside in the yard is 12,000 feet of track and every kind of engine and rolling stock that you can imagine. Visitors can even drive a locomotive through the Museum's Run-a-Locomotive program. Our group got to participate in a train ride in a variety of old cabooses.

From Portola we headed for an overnight stay at Chalet View Lodge outside of Graeagle. This is a very nice upscale resort on large picturesque grounds. There are rooms in the lodge section and individual cabins available. Dining is on site and you can enjoy the pool or the Jacuzzi. A spa, fitness room, Bocce and volleyball courts, 6-hole golf course, a ponds stocked with trout are all on this property. They have wine bar and soon will have a brewery and also offer Starbucks coffee.

After a great night's sleep we drove down a rural byway for a stop at Gold Lake. This small lake is set in a dip in the mountains and a more serene place would be hard to find. We snapped photos and watched as Canada geese flew overhead, squawking on their way.

Then we were back on the road until the majestic Sierra Buttes came into view and our kindly bus driver allowed for me to jump off for a photo opportunity. Here there was a bit more fall color evident in the trees but we had already come to realize that this either was not a spectacular year or we were in the area a bit too early.

The tiny gold rush town of Downieville on a fork of the Yuba River proved to be a great rest stop break and we all visited the Downieville Museum that is housed in a building from 1852 that has thick walls of stone and an iron door. Here docents showed us tools and implements used by miners of old. A stuffed mountain lion resides in the back room and a docent demonstrated a hand cranked washing machine. Then we wandered the plank sidewalks and browsed in and out of some of the shops. Mining for gold in the heydays of that activity was what made the towns in the Mother Lode great. Now they are quiet little hamlets that tourists love to explore.

Gold mining took up the last part of our fall color trip with a tour of the Empire Mine where we enjoyed a miner's lunch consisting of something called "pasties." These are meat-filled doughy pastries that apparently were concocted by gold rush miners in desperation for sustenance. While interesting to see what those times of old brought forth, "pasties" are something I could live without. I did, however, enjoy the ice cream dessert.

The Empire Mine is now a state historic park and encompasses the elegant homes of some of the mine's owners as well as the original mine shaft. This mine produced six million ounces of gold valued at $100 million and was the deepest hard rock mine in California. I don't venture down mine shafts or into caves anymore mostly because of the terrain not being the best and I actually find them kind of creepy, so I enjoyed touring William Bourne's stately residence and clubhouse. Bourne was the last owner of the mine and was an influential person in California history. Adjacent to the gift shop was a great museum display showing how the mine worked and numerous photos of actual miners at work. The Empire Mine State Historical Park is located just outside of Grass Valley.

The last stop on our tour was Nevada City with a knowledgeable historical guide. Beautiful Victorian homes still grace this gold mining town with picturesque white church spires punctuating the hillsides. One can't help but feel the essence of times past and the great amount of history towns like this have given to California and the nation.

We headed home – fall color tour over and not much color to speak of. It is November now and as far as fall color is concerned, the best display locally lies in the salicornia-pickleweed estuary in Morro Bay that has just now turned a lovely shade of crimson and rust. New England has nothing to worry about. We won't be taking over the title of best fall color in the United States!

Fall Color in California!