Monday, June 17, 2013

Sierra Nevada at Last

  I can't tell you how great it's been to be in the Sierra!  As soon as I hit the Yuba River, just beyond Nevada City, I was overjoyed.  Goodbye valley, foothills, and heat, I was ready for the mountains.
  Unfortunately, the heatwave lasted a few more days and my first couple days of climbing the Sierra were still in the mid 90s.  My attitude however, was much better as I climbed up out of the grasslands and into the Black Oak and Conifers.  As I rode up, CASSIN'S VIREOS and HERMIT WARBLERS were numerous.  Yellow-rumped Warblers also became prevalent.  By the time I got to Union Flat Campground on Highway 49, I was seeing and hearing almost the full compliment of mountain breeding warblers.  Two of these were MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS and NASHVILLE WARBLRS singing about the campground.  A pair of AMERICAN DIPPERS were feeding a fledgling on the rocks in the Yuba River.  Always a fun find.
  Camping in Union Flat left only a short, uphill ride to San Francisco State's Sierra Nevada Field Campus.  I worked in the kitchen at the field campus last summer and was excited to be heading back there to assist Jim Steele with the Birding By Ear course.  The field campus is located right on the Yuba River at about 5400 feet.  It's an incredible place were folks come to learn about natural history out in the field.  Check out the website:

  The classes are fantastic, the food is great, and the community is inspiring.  This place draws some great naturalists and life long learners.  It's the type of place where you can run into people excited to collect fungi, stop and look at strange bugs, or sketch a flower they've never seen before.  Last year, I came home to the field campus one evening and found fifteen people surrounding a bright light and a sheet that was hung up behind it.  They were taking turns shouting out latin names of moths and other nocturnal insects coming to the light.  I thought, "Ah... I've found my people."  It was good to be back this year.

  With several days before the Birding By Ear course began, I set out to tune my ear to mountain bird voices.  The Lakes Basin near Sierra Buttes is an incredible place for birds, butterflies, and wildflowers (A dry winter/spring meant that the wildflowers and insects were pretty far along in their life cycles compared to last year).  I was surrounded by new song that I just don't hear down in the Bay Area.   FOX SPARROWS and GREEN-TAILED TOWHEES sang from the chaparral with the Buttes as a backdrop. CASSIN'S FINCHES and EVENING GROSBEAKS are common at the Field Campus' feeders.  This year, like last, there is a MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE nest in the wall of the dining hall.
   Yuba Pass, just five miles above the Field Campus, is known as a great birding hotspot.  I love spending time up there.  This year, there have been a good number of LAZULI BUNTINGS.  One can also turn up singing CHIPPING SPARROWS and LINCOLN SPARROWS.  This year, someone discovered a WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER nest at the pass.  As of yesterday 6/16, it is still very active.  A single PINE GROSBEAK was a really fun bird to hear singing at the pass on June 6.  This was another bird I wasn't sure I was going to turn up for the year.
  There were several birds up here that I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to find.  Fortunately, word of mouth and bird listserves help considerably.  Bob Power found a WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER at Packer Lake in early June.  I went up and looked around for an hour and was just leaving as the bird flew in to the east end of the lake.  A BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER was a bit out of place singing from a Lodgepole Pine just below Packer Lake.
  Another bird that can be challenging to see is the BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER.  Last summer I had a handful of sightings over the course of three months.  Fortunately, after a few searches in the Bassett's Fire Burn area across the street from the Field Campus, I found one.
  The mix of mature Red Fir forests and more open chaparral habitat make this area a great place to work on separating HAMMOND'S and DUSKY FLYCATCHERS.  I find these species easiest to discern by ear though habitat and a number of visual cues help too.

   The Birding By Ear course went very well.  I believe we heard right around 90 species.  We saw but did not hear more than 30 species in addition to that.
  Birding By Ear, the course, meant a break from "birding by bike".  When we drove to Salmon Creek Campground for the class and saw a NORTHERN GOSHAWK fly by, I got nervous that I wouldn't see another one to count towards the big year.  Fortunately, yesterday 6/16, I saw one heading south at Yuba Pass.
  Another bird I just recently found was a SPOTTED OWL.  That bird was near Yuba Pass off of Haskell Creek Road.  I saw it fly across the sky as the sun was setting and the COMMON POORWILL were just starting to sing.  Riding back down Highway 49 at 10:30 pm was cold, but absolutely worth it.  Afterall, what can be more satisfying than a full day of bird finding and cycling?

  Well, I leave the Field Campus tomorrow.  I really feel that I only "missed (or "dipped on", as birders say) the Sooty Grouse.  I'll be going through some other mountainous areas, so I still have a small chance at seeing one.  It's pretty easy to let that one go considering I've seen so much up here.
  I'll miss the campus.  Many thanks to J.R. Blair and the Sierra Nevada Field Campus Staff for having me, Jim Steele for allowing me to help with the Birding By Ear class, and to all the eBirders out their who help contribute to the conservation database and make their sightings available to bird finders like me.

I'm off to Truckee, Lake Tahoe, Markleeville, and then the east side of the Sierra.

More from somewhere down the road...

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