Thursday, July 24, 2008
I am a relative newcomer to southern California, but I've learned one thing very well. Birding in the mountains in the summer is a blast. Last weekend I had the opportunity to slip back up to the San Jacinto Mountains with my dad and Chris West, a young birder visiting from Wisconsin.
After battling rush-hour traffic on Friday evening, we finally arrived at Boulder Basin Campground at the north end of the San Jacinto Mountains after dark. Instead of looking for owls as we should have done, we set up camp and collapsed in our sleeping bags.
Morning came, and the birds woke us up early. After gobbling up some muffins and doughnut holes, Chris and I climbed up on top of a nearby hill, scrambling over the immense boulders. We quickly found typical mountain birds such as Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Stellar's Jay, Brown Creeper, and Violet-green Swallow. I also spotted Chris's first White-headed Woodpeckers, a family going about their business in the crown of a tall pine tree. Some of the boulders we climbed offered commanding views.
After we broke camp, we explored Forest Service Road 4S01 for several miles past Boulder Basin. In the Fuller Ridge area we found exciting birds such as Rock Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Cassin's Finch. The road also gave spectacular views of the desert over a mile below. After wandering around a little bit more (and finding Chris's life Green-tailed Towhees in the process) we descended the mountain back to Highway 243. On the way down, a flock of Mountain Quail scurried across the road. We managed to track them down as they ran off into the brush. Another lifer for Chris, and always a fun bird to see.
In the early afternoon, we set up camp at Idyllwild County Park. We sought shade under the towering pine trees; the sun was warm. We spent most of the afternoon resting in the shade, chasing butterflies, and showering. Chris managed to catch this California Dogface, a life butterfly for me. If you have a vivid imagination, perhaps you can see the profile of a poodle head on its wing. The tops of the wings are gaudily colored.
We befriended a couple Stellar's Jays around the campsite, bribing them with tasty peanut snacks. The jays were very tame, and would eat peanuts on a stump five feet away as we watched and clicked away with our cameras.
As the temperatures cooled in the evening, we drove to the Garner Valley area to search for other birds. Lake Hemet produced a lone Western Grebe and a few Caspian Terns. We found a flock of Tricolored Blackbirds in the small marshy creek on Highway 74 past Lake Hemet. This interesting little wetland produced not only the Tricolored Blackbirds but also Black-crowned Night-Herons, American Coots, Lawrence's Goldfinches, and Great-tailed Grackles. The Tricolored Blackbirds and Lawrence's Goldfinches were both lifers for Chris.
Here is a view of the creek, with the hills in the background.
We raced around the Garner Valley as the light faded, hoping for Pinyon Jays. The jays outwitted us, and we returned to our campground disappointed. Chris and I vowed to look for owls that night, but weariness won again. However, I did hear a Western Screech-Owl calling above our tent, so the night wasn't completely owl-less.
We were in for a surprise on Sunday morning. Rain! I had assured Chris that it never rained in the summer in southern California and that we didn't need rain fly; Chris reminded me of this as we frantically tore down our tents and shoved them in the car as the rain pelted our backs. The rain tapered off, and we decided to try hiking up the Devil's Slide Trail. Everything was fine at first; we hiked up, trying to ignore the ominous gray clouds hanging over the mountain.
The weather finally defeated us. Rain began dripping out of the sky, and thunder clapped in the distance. The clouds seemed to get darker, and much of the forest was concealed by mist. We turned around and headed back for the car. I paused on the way down to photograph the misty forest below.
What to do? I had planned to spent the whole morning hiking up the Devil's Slide Trail, and we were supposed to pick up John Garret (fellow young birder) in Idyllwild early in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the morning birding the Garner Valley. We still couldn't find any Pinyon Jays, but we located a cluster of at least thirty Lawrence's Goldfinches foraging by the roadside. We ended up seeing over fifty that morning. This photo shows ten Lawrence's Goldfinches.
Some two hours of cruising random roads in hopes of Pinyon Jays later, I spotted a few large blue birds walking around on the side of the road. Pinyon Jays! We were greeted by their nasal calls as we leaped from the van. It was quite a large flock, perhaps twenty strong. It included many begging juveniles. They were utterly uncooperative for photos, but I couldn't help including a photo here because they are such neat birds.
We celebrated our success by feasting on sandwiches (I discovered that grape sandwiches are delicious) at Lake Hemet. I tossed a few peanuts to a loitering Western Scrub-Jay; soon we were surrounded by nearly ten scrub-jays screaming for food.
After picking John Garrett up in Idyllwild early in the afternoon, we headed for home. It was a fun jaunt - I didn't pick up any lifers, but I found quite a few for Chris. I also managed to find several county birds. And, of course, mountain birding is always fun. It makes a nice break from all those California Gnatcatchers...