Sunday, June 22, 2008

Montane Adventures - Part I

I was suddenly jerked out of my restless sleep. I yawned, and burrowed deeper in my sleeping bag. Then I heard the sound again - the sound that had woken me up, a twittery chatter. I groggily sifted through the possibilities in my sleep-deprived head. No, it wasn't an owl... or a nightjar. Then it clicked - Violet-Green Swallow. But why was it calling in the middle of the night, when the only light came from the soft silver glow of the moon? I sat up, confused, and groped for the alarm clock. Four-ten. I groaned and fell back on my pillow. Sleep, however, was elusive. The combination of the incessant twittering of the swallows, the squeaks of bats fluttering around the tent, and my building excitement simply made sleep impossible. I laid there, listening my dad snoring next to me and also waiting for other birds to wake up. As the darkness gradually changed to pre-dawn gray, birds other than those crazy swallows started calling. Western Bluebird. Mountain Chickadee. Stellar's Jay. Western Wood-Pewee.

This was how my Friday morning started. My dad and I were camping at Boulder Basin Campground, a remote campground located high in the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County. After a spartan breakfast, we immediately set about the business of finding birds. One of the first birds I laid my eyes on was a beautiful male Cassin's Finch singing from the top of a dead pine tree. A lifer, and a promising start the the trip. As we wandered around the campground (which was deserted except for a handful of other campers), we encountered a variety of other mountain birds, such as Pygmy Nuthatch, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Brown Creeper. I was excited to see a pair of Red Crossbills fly over. Another lifer. Red Crossbill has always been something of a nemesis bird for me, so I was happy to pin it down.

My dad's urgent need for coffee forced us to depart early (remote campgrounds on top of mountains generally aren't good habitat for coffee shops). On the way down the dirt road from the campground to the highway, we found birds such as Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. Incidentally, the road (4S01) was rather rough and dusty; it wasn't until the next day that I read "Low-clearance vehicles are not recommended on Forest Road 4S01." We were driving a Ford Taurus.

After the mandatory coffee stop, we took a short hike along the North Fork of the San Jacinto Creek. We were greeted by makeshift signs warning us to stay away from the creek because of the endangered Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs that reside there. We had to keep at least ten feet away from the water so as not to disturb the frogs. After a short stroll, a male Mountain Quail scurried across the path ahead of me. Instead of disappearing into the brush as I expected it to do, the bird climbed up on a large rock above the trail, peered down at us, and gave churring calls. We had excellent looks and I snapped a few decent photos. Another lifer! While concentrating on the quail, I did not notice the numerous mosquitoes until I glanced down and saw about a dozen merrily sucking the blood out of my legs. We quickly bade good-bye to the quail and got out of there.

We headed towards the town of Idyllwild on the ridiculously scenic Highway 243. Our next stop was Idyllwild County Park, a delightful natural park filled with massive pines. The nature center boasts a large array of feeders, which attract lots of birds. Band-tailed Pigeons squabbled and waddled all over the place. I spotted a White-headed Woodpecker working a pine trunk right off the deck. A cracking bird!

By now we were nearly hungry enough to chase the birds off the feeders and gobble up the seed, so we paused for lunch. Like our camping breakfasts, our camping lunches border on barbaric. A few hastily made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, perhaps with some granola bars or an apple on the side, serve for lunch. Can't beat it!

Satisfied, we wandered around the Garner Valley for some time. A scenic area of meadows and pinyon pine forest, the Garner Valley is home to the highly sought-after Pinyon Jays, among other birds. We cruised around, windows rolled down, listening for birds. The birds were smarter than we were - it was hot, and the birds seemed to be taking a siesta. Suddenly, I spotted a feeder covered with birds. We stopped, hoping the people who lived there didn't mind two rather suspicious characters peering into their yard with binoculars. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, and a black-faced finch with yellow wing bars munched seed out of the feeders. Wait - black face?! Yellow wing bars?! Lawrence's Goldfinch! We enjoyed fine looks of this stunning bird as it fed and battled the masses of Lesser Goldfinches on the feeder. Another life bird, and one I'm very happy about; I was rather embarrassed not to find any this spring. I couldn't get any good photos, but here's a horrible one just to show certain people (*ahem* Mr. Garrett) that I did actually manage to find one.

With that, we headed to the campground at Idyllwild County Park to set up camp. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the shade. Birds were not particularly plentiful, but a very brash Stellar's Jay demanded handouts of peanuts from me. I was happy to oblige. A few American Robins were hanging around as well. This species is not nearly as common in California as back east.

Later in the afternoon, as it cooled down, we took a short walk around the park to look for other birds. There were lots of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Mountain Chickadees, Spotted Towhees, Stellar's Jays, and Pygmy Nuthatches along the small creek that runs through the park. I at last managed to get a shot of a Pygmy Nuthatch - these guys are tiny, hyperactive, and very difficult to photograph.

Ah, dinner. No going out to fancy restaurants for us. Instead, we cooked up a delicious and elegant supper of beans, potatoes, and hot dogs. Mmmmmmmmmm.


matthewbaker said...

Great Blog! I'm from Windsor, Ontario and have been out here for almost 2 years.

I started out birding when I was 13 - not too many my age birding then, are there many now?

Let me know if you're ever around Redlands.

Good birding!


Squid said...

Nice shots Neil and a great report!

You should know that Ford Tauri are more durable than you think! We managed to get one most of the way up Carr Canyon, probably the worst road in SE AZ!

Congrats on all those lifers!