Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013: The Redwood Highway

The Redwood Highway

November 24, 2013


  • The Band -- Live at the Academy of Music, 1971
Interstate 880, Oakland, CA
Bay Bridge
Heading up to Salem for Thanksgiving, I left on Sunday.  My plan was to drive all the up Highway 101 to the top of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington then back down through Olympia to Salem.  The drive would take four days and would have me staying overnight in two national parks.  My kind of trip.  I started by driving into the city and connecting with 101 at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Fort Point, San Francisco, CA
The drive through San Francisco was a nice way to start.  The new section of the Bay Bridge looks great from a distance.  It was the first of a number of dramatic bridges I'd cross over the next few days.

Rainbow Tunnels, Marin, CA
I saw some elk beside the highway in Mendocino.  It was an unusual spot to see elk in spite of the fact that there was an "Elk Next 2 Miles" sign along the road.  I've never had a sighting of any along the road except within the boundaries of Redwood National Park where roosevelt elk are common.  I'm pretty sure these were tule elk.

Tule Elk -- Mendocino County, CA
There is a short stretch of roadside attractions along 101 near Piercy.  The funkiest of them has to be Confusion Hill.  There's a train ride and a "gravity house", which is one of those crooked/vortex/mystery houses where things fall sideways.  I've never actually been able to bring myself to go inside, suspecting I'll find it to be a frustrating waste of time and money.  I guess I'm not really a roadside attraction kind of person.  I enjoy seeing them as I drive by when they're done up with as much flair as Confusion Hill.

Confusion Hill, Piercy, CA

Driving through Humboldt County, I caught sight of something thrashing around in the water in the Eel River. I was pretty excited because it looked like it was probably salmon running up stream.  Sure enough, I took the first exit and found a way down to the river where there were a couple of dozen salmon making their way upstream.  Holy cow!

Chinook Salmon -- Eel River, CA

I stayed at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground in Prairie Creek State Park.  The state park is part of the Redwood National Park system.  I don't really understand how Redwood NP is set up.  Most of the park lands are actually state parks.  I guess they work together.  Camping kind of sucks because of this, though, because California State Parks are charging $35 a night now.  National Park rates are usually $10 to $20 a night.  The campground was right on the beach.  Man, it was cold.  Cool campground, though, being right on the beach.

Gold Bluffs Beach, Redwood National Park, CA

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lake Merritt

November 23, 2013

I took Pongo for a short walk around Lake Merritt today.  It's not the normal type of place I'd take him.  There are far too many people, too much stimulation in general.  Still, we had a nice little twilight stroll up and down the South shore.

Ya think he's a little excited?
I've lived around Oakland for twenty-five years, minus a couple of years that we spent on the peninsula.  I've always had mixed feelings about this city.  I love the culture and the restaurants.  Oakland's Chinatown is the real deal, not the tourist trap in San Francisco.  Lake Merritt is one of Oakland's gems.

The side of the lake we were on didn't have a whole lot of birds on it.  I guessed this would be the best spot for anything we did see given the late afternoon light.  My favorite bird from our walk was the common goldeneye we saw.  He was diving for food, which was fun to watch.

Common Goldeneye -- Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA
There was an eared grebe that was close enough to shore that we could watch him underwater as he dove for food.  He was fast under the water, which was surprising given how he (she?) looked like a giant gray cotton ball on top of the water.

Eared Grebe -- Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA
Of course, there were a bunch of cormorants, seagulls and coots, but most were too far away to really watch.  We saw a white pelican out in the middle of the lake.  Too far out to get a decent picture of, unfortunately.  There was a large gathering of birds on the South-East section of the lake, but it was getting too dark for decent pictures.

American Coot -- Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA
If there were fewer people I'd make this a regular walk with Pongo.  Hmmm.  Maybe early mornings?  I might give that a try.

Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA

Monday, November 18, 2013

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

November 17, 2013


  • Arcade Fire -- Reflektor
Honestly, this trip almost ended up being a bit of a bummer.  It had a great save at the end, but this trip was looking like it was going to be my first disappointing weekend adventure in a long, long time.

Ferruginous Hawk -- San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA

It started out by me sleeping in until 11:00.  It didn't help that I didn't really have a plan.  I knew more about what I didn't want to do than what I wanted to do.  In particular, I didn't want to travel too far away.  I've got a big trip coming up next week, I wanted to keep it close to home and to take Pongo someplace he'd enjoy.  Pinnacles is always option number one where that is concerned.  Pongo loves that place.  San Luis National Wildlife Refuge has a lot of the same things that make Pinnacles special to Pongo, in particular rabbits and squirrels.

Do rabbits hibernate?  I've got to look that up.  We didn't see a single rabbit the entire time we were there.  We saw a few squirrels.  Pongo liked seeing those.

Coyote -- San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA
We saw a coyote.  I really like coyotes.  Actually, I should say that I saw a coyote.  Pongo never saw him.  Nothing that gets close to the car gets by Pongo.  As soon as we hit a dirt road he's glued to the windows looking for birds and critters.  He doesn't pick things up that are out in the distance, though.  We were probably 100 yards away when the coyote crossed the road and had moved off a ways by the time we got up to that spot.  I watched him, but Pongo was too busy looking at squirrels.

 Tule Elk -- San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Tule Elk are always fun to see, but if you've followed this blog at all you know I had a pretty awesome tule elk experience just a few weeks ago at Point Reyes.  San Luis really can't compete with point Reyes when it comes to seeing elk.  At San Luis all you can do is drive around the elk area and look at them through a big fence.  There's no fence at Point Reyes.  You're in the same space with the animals.
Barn Owl -- San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA
It was the barn owl that saved the trip.  I don't think I've ever seen an owl in the wild.  This guy (gal?) was just sitting on a fence waiting for me and Pongo to drive by.  What a strange looking bird.  We were able to get close enough to him that when he dropped from his signpost to the ground to try to kill something for dinner we could hear him land and rustle around.

Barn Owl -- San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge & Salem, OR

Saying Goodbye

November 9 - 11, 2013

My mother called me Thursday night with some bad news.  My Aunt Caroline had passed away.  She'd been fighting leukemia for a couple of years.  The funeral was on Sunday in Salem and I made the drive up to attend.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Red-shouldered Hawk
Even though I'd been there just the week before with Pongo, since it's along the way I decided to take the drive around Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge again.  Pongo and I certainly enjoyed it the first time and I thought I might get lucky and see a few different types of birds.  Unlike the week before, it was a bright, sunny day on Saturday.  As far as waterfowl goes, it was  pretty much the same as before.  I'd also seen about a dozen northern harriers the week before (I know, right?) but I didn't see a single one on this trip.  The hawks were out in force, though.  I talked with one of the ladies working in the visitor center and she said a lot of different types of birds had arrived over the last couple of days, but I guess I'm not sharp enough to tell the difference.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
I saw a couple of pheasants on the loop.  the first one was too quick and too far away for me to get a picture.  I almost missed the second one.  I had to back up to pick him up.  They sure are beautiful birds.

Ring-necked Pheasant -- Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
White-fronted Geese
After leaving the refuge, I bombed my way up to Salem.  I met my brother downtown and we had a  couple of beers.  Salem has a few nice places to hang out now.  That didn't used to be the case.  It's still a town dominated by chain restaurants and strip malls, but smaller, more interesting places have been sprouting up over the last few years.  I kept my mom up until after 2:00 in the morning talking about this and that.  She's not used to those late nights.

Mount Shasta, CA
Beaver Lodge
The funeral service was on Sunday afternoon.  Roughly 1100 people were in attendance.  It was way too religious for my taste, but it suited Aunt Caroline and my cousins did great delivering eulogies.  Before the service, I went in search of a beaver dam my brother had told me about.  Unfortunately, the river was running too high and had flooded out the field on which the dam was built.  I couldn't get close to it, or even really see it for that matter.  I was able to find the lodge the beavers had built, though.

Minto-Brown Island, OR
Boo Radley's House
I also visited the neighborhood I grew up in.  The house my parents owned was small, but the neighborhood was full of kids.  Of course, everything looked a lot smaller to me than as I remember it.  This neighborhood has been the setting in my mind for just about every book I've ever read.  Some books fit better than others, of course.  As I recall, it was a great place for trick or treating.

European Starling
After the service, I met my brother and my oldest friend Eric for drinks.  Eric's mother and my mother were close friends.  Our dad's were in the service when we were both born a couple of months apart.  My mom said Carol drove her to the hospital and she drove Carol to the hospital.  I'd never heard that before.

Wallace Marine Park, Salem, OR
I drove back to Alameda on Monday.  Before leaving Salem, I drove around and took a few pictures.  It was foggy, which gives the city a more romantic feel than it normally can pull off.  I don't really have a whole lot of nice things to say about this town, but it sure looks good when it's hard to see.

Riverfront Park, Salem, OR
On my way home, I stopped for lunch at King's Estate Winery near Cottage Grove.  They make some darned good wine there.  The food was pretty good, too.  I met my aunt and uncle there, who were hooking up with a couple of old friends from Texas.  It was a nice ending to what was basically a tough trip to help put a family member to rest.  There are times when being a part of a family seems important, and this was certainly one of those.

European Starlings -- King's Estate Winery, OR

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

All Your Ducks Are Belong to Us

November 3, 2013


  • The National -- Trouble Will Find Me
My original intent for this trip was to see the sandhill cranes in the Central Valley.  I altered that a bit when I decided to take Pongo along.  We'd need a place where we could hike, and the reserve I was looking at for the sandhill cranes only has an auto tour.  Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge has a nice trail to walk and they're dog-friendly, and Yolo Wildlife Bypass Area is right on the way if we take Interstate 80 all the way to Sacramento.  It would be a day for seeing birds.

What do you mean it's not a "real" duck?
Yolo Wildlife Bypass Area is between Davis and Sacramento.  Interstate 80 drives right through it.  If you're driving through there at the right time of year you will see thousands of birds from the interstate.  Obviously, getting down into the wildlife area will get you a lot closer to the action.  Dogs are allowed to walk around on the North side of the freeway.  Unfortunately, most of that area was closed off.  There was a road that was open to foot traffic and it allowed us to get to the train tracks where we found another road that we followed for a while.

American Kestrel -- Yolo Wildlife Bypass Area, CA
We didn't see too many birds on that walk.  We saw a kestrel eating something on top of some abandoned farm machinery and a couple of hooded mergansers in a creek.  That was pretty much it, though.

Great Egrets -- Yolo Wildlife Bypass Area, CA
The driving tour through the wildlife area proved to be a little more fruitful.  I've generally encountered lone greater egrets, but here they were grouped together in a small flock.  They're just simple white birds, but they sure are elegant.  We also saw a few northern harriers hunting in the fields.  This would turn out to be a big day for seeing harriers.  I saw well over a dozen of these birds between the two wildlife areas.

Yolo Wildlife Bypass Area, CA
I was a little disappointed with the number of birds we saw at Yolo.  I was expecting flocks of ducks and geese.  We saw a few ducks and a bunch of coots.  I'm not sure if we were too early in the year or if birds weren't around because it was mid-day.  I'll definitely have to try it deeper into winter.

Tundra Swans -- Golden State Highway, CA
I took a little detour on Route 99 North of Sacramento.  Well, frankly I was just going the wrong way.  I'd looked at a map to the Sacramento refuge online and it showed it right off of 99.  Turns out there's two 99s.  The one I wanted parallels I-5, it's called 99W.  D'oh!  It worked out pretty well, though.  As I was driving up 99 I saw a flock of large white birds in a flooded field.  I thought maybe they were the sandhill cranes I'd hoped to see, but when I got close I saw they were swans.  Cool, right?  These were some big birds.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Northern Harrier
There's a two and a half mile loop trail at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  It's a nice little hike with a lot of little burrows trail side that Pongo could explore.  We watched the harriers hunt over the field and saw a couple of small flocks of birds off in the distance, but honestly the trail had less to offer in terms of wildlife than what we'd seen at Yolo Bypass.  I was a little disappointed and even considered skipping the driving tour.  That would have been a big mistake.

A few birds scattered about -- Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
I have never seen as many birds in one place as I saw on that driving tour.  I've heard stories about how the sky would turn black in the Central Valley from all of the birds overhead and I can only imagine what it must have been like before all of the water was diverted to farms.  It's a lot easier to imagine now after seeing these big flocks of wintering waterfowl on the refuge.

Snow Geese -- Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Pongo loved this drive.  He'd sit in the passenger seat and watch the birds through the window.  His ears would perk up whenever we got to a particularly loud section and he'd hop to the back of the car whenever we passed something he thought was interesting.  The highlight for him, though, was clearly the raccoon we saw on the side of the road.  Pongo wanted at that raccoon.  He barked and jumped up onto the dashboard to try to get around me and out my open window.  There's an ancient hatred between dogs and raccoons, the carnage would not have been pretty if he'd made it out the window.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Northern Pintails
California must have been an amazing place a hundred and fifty years ago.  Of course, back then I'd have had to have been concerned about grizzly bears.  These wetlands were their habitat.  We think of grizzlies as being mountain animals because that's the only place you'll find them in the lower forty-eight today.  That wasn't the case in California, and that's why we'll probably never see the state's official animal returned to the state.  Grizzlies lived where people live today.

Snow Geese, Ross's Geese & Various Ducks -- Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA
It started out slowly and there was a wrong turn or two in there, but the trip Pongo and I took into the Central Valley turned out to be a pretty good one.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA