Grand California Aug 13—25, 2011
Posted by Jeri Langham
Whenever someone asks if I get tired of leading Grand California, I laugh and say, "Picture San Francisco, Point Reyes, Bodega Bay, the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake, the White Mountains, Yosemite National Park, Monterey, and the Big Sur coastline. Now tell me you could ever get tired of the scenery, not to mention the array of possible birds, plants, and other animals." Our endemic Yellow-billed Magpie is much more difficult to see due to decimation by the West Nile Virus, but we still always find some in the Sacramento area, and this year our pelagic trip on Monterey Bay produced the 4th Northern Hemisphere record for Great-winged Petrel.
Here are some excerpts from the daily journal I write and then mail to all participants after I get home.
August 14, San Francisco to Bodega Bay — We drove down the road toward the ocean and had exceptional luck with Wrentit, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Wilson's Warbler, Bewick's Wren, Spotted Towhee, and Band-tailed Pigeon. Back at the main parking area, we enjoyed views of the majestic, tallest tree species in the world, Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood. I gave you a handout that I used for my Plant Biology class field trips and you were able to see the scientific and common names of all the dominant plant species as I pointed them out. Several Pacific Wrens (newly split from Winter Wren) and the main target bird for the area, gave us excellent views while we enjoyed a short walk among the tall trees, and I gave mini lectures along the way. Five Brooks Station produced our first Bushtits, Wood Ducks, and a great Nuttall's Woodpecker. After checking into the Bodega Coast Inn and taking a short rest, we headed for Bodega Head. The tide was headed out so we had great looks at many species of shorebirds on the exposed mudflat, with the best being Red Knot. We also picked up Common Loon, White-winged Scoter, and "Black" Brant. Finally arriving at Bodega Head, we added Black Oystercatcher, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, and all three possible cormorant species.
August 17, Sacramento to Wright's Lake to Lake Tahoe — We headed straight to the home of Jack and Phyllis Wilburn to try to get hummingbirds to alight on our fingers. Several of you were successful. As we drove through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the landscape changed dramatically after we passed through Placerville and entered the Yellow Pine ecosystem. I gave a mini lecture on tree identification and we saw our first White-headed Woodpecker. From here we drove toward Wright's Lake via Ice House Road. Going through the burn area, we added Acorn Woodpecker, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Cooper's Hawk. The burn ended in the Red Fir/Lodgepole Pine Ecosystem and our first stop here brought a very cooperative mixed flock responding to my owl calls. We added such warblers as Nashville, Hermit, Yellow, and dozens of Yellow-rumped. We had another wonderful flock at Ice House Reservoir, with "thick-billed" Fox Sparrow, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and more that gave us quite a show. After our picnic lunch, we continued stopping from time to time to see what my owl calls and pishing would bring in. Williamson's Sapsucker and MacGillivray's Warbler were my favorites.
August 19, Bishop to Bristlecone Pines to Lee Vining — Our first stop was a small bridge where the best bird was a perched Roadrunner. We were extremely lucky to see our first several dozen Chukars on the side of the road before we reached Tollhouse Spring, the only place I know where they can be seen easily. Once there, we saw more of them, but the highlight here was Pinyon Jay. In the open forest after reaching the entrance station to the bristlecone pine viewing area, our best bird was a Plumbeous Vireo, but we also added Gray Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Juniper Titmouse. Schulman Grove was our next big stop and here we were treated to the ancient Pinus longaeva forest—some trees nearing 5,000 years old. The short (about a mile round-trip) 10,000-foot elevation walk among the gnarled bristlecone pine trees produced several flocks with Pygmy and White-breasted nuthatches, dozens of Mountain Chickadees, the gray-headed race of Dark-eyed Junco and more. I always enjoy walking in this incredible ecosystem and marvel at the ability of bristlecone pines to live so long under these tough conditions at this elevation. We then returned to Bishop and headed up the road to Benton Hot Springs, where we were all delighted with great views of a perched and flying Prairie Falcon.
August 21, Lee Vining to Yosemite National Park — We drove to the northwest shore of Mono Lake for a visit to the Mono Lake picnic/visitor area. We had wonderful views of the tufa towers that were next to the boardwalk and others that were in the lake. I always have to remind myself that this huge body of water is too salty (3X that of the ocean) to support any fish life. We saw thousands of Wilson's Phalaropes, Eared Grebes, and California Gulls. Two Virginia Rails came over to the platform for a quick look and we saw a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Then we headed to the very scenic Lundy Lake, where we saw an adult Townsend's Solitaire feeding a fledged juvenile. At Ellery Lake, we had a great encounter with a black bear that stole a large fish from a fisherman. The scenery at Olmstead Point included spotting scope views of the people walking up to and near the top edge of the distant, spectacular Half Dome.
August 22, Yosemite Valley, Westfall Meadow, and Glacier Point — We were soon staring at the incredible El Capitan. It has been such a wet year that there was more water coming down from Bridalveil Fall than I remember from previous tours. After we drove out of the valley floor, we stopped at my favorite location for seeing three swift species and saw both Black and White-throated swifts. We drove to the entrance to McGurk Meadow. On our hike down to the meadow we had wonderful experiences with several trees that were filled with birds responding to my owl calls and pishing. By the end of the walk, we had added our first Townsend's Warbler, both Dusky and Hammond's flycatchers, Calliope Hummingbird, and enjoyed others we had seen previously. Because of the late hour, we drove straight to Glacier Point for lunch. This turned out to be incredibly lucky timing, as a female Sooty Grouse and one juvenile were next to the walkway to the store where we bought lunch. We were able to get fantastic photos. The scenery here at Glacier Point was the best of the trip. We could see part of El Capitan, people looking like ants walking around the top of Half Dome, two sets of waterfalls, and valley floor activity—AWESOME VIEWING! On the drive back to the hotel we stopped at the base of El Capitan, and just before arriving at the hotel, we stopped at a river overlook and saw two Golden Eagles, one perched for scope views, and later two Common Ravens chasing them away.
August 24, Yosemite to Monterey — One of my luckiest spots for the inland race of Mountain Quail produced them again. We then continued on to the Mariposa Grove. There is no way to adequately describe the Sierra redwoods or big trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum), the largest (not tallest) organism to have lived on our planet! You took the tram all the way up the hill to the Grizzled Giant, Clothespin Tree, and the cabin built in memory of Galen Clark.
August 26, Monterey Pelagic Trip — Debi Shearwater checked us in at the dock while leaders Jennifer Green, Abe Borker, Wes Fritz, and Clay Kempf helped you climb aboard. Our skipper today was Tinker, who has been taking birders out on Monterey Bay since the late seventies and early eighties when I was leading 10–15 pelagic trips a year for Debi. He really knows how to approach birds so that most of us get a chance to see them. We saw our first Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt's and Pelagic cormorants, sea otters, a Peregrine Falcon, and California sea lions while still cruising near shore. One of Debi's three leaders always begins to throw popcorn and other chum off the stern to keep a flock of gulls with us all day, and today that duty fell to Wes. These attract some of the great pelagic species we would see later in the day. In the 100+ pelagic trips I have taken, today's Great-winged Petrel is by far the star of the show, since it is only the 4th record for the Northern Hemisphere. Rhinoceros Auklets appeared from time to time, but we only had one terrible look at a flying-away Cassin's Auklet. Black-footed Albatrosses were easy, with up to six visible from the boat at one time. This was one of my best pelagic trips, as we also saw Parasitic (the rarest today) and many Pomarine jaegers with several full adults that were easy to identify. Even more amazing was the appearance of one South Polar Skua. Part of the reason for such good luck with these species was the large number of beautiful Sabine's Gulls we saw today, as well as Arctic and Common terns and both Red and Red-necked phalaropes. We had great looks at many Ashy Storm-Petrels and one Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We also had a wonderful encounter with three orcas and some distant Risso's dolphins.