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Wildlife birthday surprises
Linda and Oly Fruge sighted at mink while visiting the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. - photo by Photo Contributed

Since my husband Oly and I both appreciate the wonders of nature, we will often celebrate our birthdays by going on an outing.

This year on Oly's birthday in mid-March, we visited the wetlands south of town.  Specifically, we went to the Bear Creek unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge at Santa Fe Grade Road. The highlights of that trip included a yellow-headed blackbird at the refuge, hundreds of migrating tree swallows along Santa Fe Grade, and a mink! Yes, a mink!

In over 40 years of nature outings, this was our first sighting of this critter. Bigger than a weasel, dark brown and furry, the mink was running alongside a little ditch next to the road. Honestly, I didn't know we had them here.

This must be a good year for minks. Later in March, Oly and his BFF Paul saw one while fishing on the San Joaquin River near the Turlock Sportsman's Club. They also saw a pair of river otters that day.  Cheers!

March is a good time to visit the wetlands. Often you will see masses of pretty yellow wildflowers, appropriately called goldfields.

My birthday was in late April. We celebrated with a trip to the Sierra foothills. We rented a cabin at the Barret Cove campground at Lake McClure for two nights. Our friends Paul and Jan joined us for part of the time. The bird watching was great and there were quite a few wildflowers, in spite of the drought.

On that note, I did notice that some of the oak trees looked rather stressed. Also, I cannot recall ever seeing so much dead mistletoe.

The day of my birthday there were so many Western bluebirds around the campground, I called it a "Bluebird Day". We saw mule deer, gray squirrels, and wild turkeys. We were treated to close looks at many species of birds: oak titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, acorn woodpeckers, and California towhees. We also saw several others, including lesser goldfinches, ravens, turkey vultures, ash-throated flycatchers and a male phainopepla. (Go ahead, Google it!)

But my favorite sighting of the day — my special birthday blessing — was not a bird. Jan and I were taking a walk, observing birds and wildflowers.  At one point, I noticed a different plant.  After looking at it closely, I said "I think this is a type of milkweed.  I would sure love to see a monarch butterfly caterpillar."  Well, just a few feet away on another milkweed plant, we saw one, in all its black- and- white- and- yellow striped glory!  I was thrilled. Happy Birthday to me!