Friday, June 5, 2009

The Mountains

Last weekend my dad and I took a trip up to the San Jacinto Mountains, an interesting mountain range a couple hours due east of us in Riverside County. In the San Jacintos it is easy to find species that are difficult or impossible to find in Orange County, including White-headed Woodpecker, Tricolored Blackbird, and Steller's Jay. It is also very fun to camp and hike in the wilderness among great birds and another animals.

Dad and I left Thursday evening and made it up to Boulder Basin Campground by nine O'clock. Boulder Basin is a very remote place; a bumpy five-mile drive up a rough mountain road is required to reach it. After setting up camp we wandered through the deserted campground, listening for owls (the campground is supposedly a good spot for Flammulated), but all was silent. Finally, as we were drifting off to sleep in our tent, a Western Screech-Owl called several times. I found this very unusual, since the campground is 7,800 feet above sea level and is vegetated mostly with pine trees. Screech-Owls aren't supposed to be up so high, but it was, and who knows why.

We awoke early Friday morning to the twittering of Violet-green Swallows swooping around the campground. As the morning slowly dawned, other species added their voices: Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Tanager, White-headed Woodpecker, and others. We birded around the campground for a few minutes, finding a few new species, including Dusky Flycatcher, Black-chinned Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker, and Pygmy Nuthatch.

Once we were all packed up, we bounced a few miles further up Black Mountain Road. A lookout a mile or two past Boulder Basin offers stupendous views. A family of Rock Wrens was jumping around the large rocks here, and the warbled song of a Cassin's Finch drifted up from the forest below.

We took a quick walk around the parking area for the Fuller Ridge Trail, about 8,000 feet above sea level. Here, both Fox Sparrows (of the "Thick-billed" group) and Green-tailed Towhees sang their similar melodious tunes from the tops of stunted trees.

The road doesn't really go anywhere past the Fuller Ridge Trailhead, so we turned around and descended the mountain. After a rough ride, we made it back to the unbelievably smooth highway. We searched a couple creeks for dippers, but once again we failed to find any. By the time we reached Idyllwild it was roughly lunch time, so we stopped and had lunch at Idyllwild County Park nature center. The feeders there were unfilled and desolate. After finishing up, we drove around to the other side of the park and set up camp in the campground. I quickly made friends with the local Steller's Jays with a bag of peanuts I had brought for just that purpose. The brazen birds would land on the other end of the picnic table and steal peanuts right out of the bag!

Later in the afternoon, we took a drive down the highway to Lake Hemet and the Garner Valley. Lake Hemet, usually devoid of birds, produced a Bald Eagle, a Clark's Grebe, and some Mallards and Coots. Sinister thunderheads rolled in, rumbling and sprinkling a bit of rain but not doing anything serious.

The alarm clock sounded early on Saturday morning, around five-thirty. We were planning to hike up the Devil's Slide Trail above Idyllwild, and an early start is a good way to beat the heat of the day. The first mile or two of the hike is rather dull bird-wise, but offers nice views of Suicide Rock (top of this post.) After a couple hours of hiking, however, we found some interesting birds, including Red-breasted Sapsucker, Mountain Quail, Green-tailed Towhee, Brown Creeper, and Hermit Warbler. When we reached Saddle Junction, two and a half miles and 1,500 feet above the parking lot, we decided to take the trail to Tahquitz Peak. Unfortunately, this trail simply disappeared after a quarter-mile, so after wandering around in the woods for awhile, we turned around and headed back to Saddle Junction. We took the Pacific Crest Trail about a mile farther up, probably to about 9,000 feet above sea level. The views from up there were spectacular, to say the least!

It was a long and hot hike, hard on the knees, back down to the parking lot. We got back to our campsite in the early afternoon. Some Western Gray Squirrels and Acorn Woodpeckers had joined the Steller's Jays in snitching peanuts.

After a lovely grilled dinner of kebabs, squash, and eggplant, we drove around a bit in the evening. One some random back roads above Idyllwild we were treated to a beautiful sunset.

I wanted to stay up late and look for Flammulated Owls at Humber Park above Idyllwild, but my dad didn't like this idea so we went to bed early instead. I'll get Flammulated once I don't have the stupid 11 p.m. - 5 a.m. curfew on my driver's license. We ended up getting up ridiculously early Sunday morning; we were packed up and out of the campground by six thirty. After the mandatory coffee stop, we took Highway 74 down through the Garner Valley to Santa Rosa Mountain. On the way, we saw a Bobcat dead in the road (and yes, we did actually stop so I could get a photo!)

We also stopped for a colony of Tricolored Blackbirds in a little swampy area near Lake Hemet. There were dozens of them in this tiny marsh right next to the highway, and many more in the surrounding fields. They look just like Red-winged Blackbirds, save for the white stripe below the red instead of a pale yellow stripe. Their call notes are also noticeably different - more of a choking sound than anything else.

Our trip up Santa Rosa Mountain turned out to be a bust, since the road was way to rough for our minivan to handle. Gr. I can't wait to get a Jeep or something that is actually capable of going up dirt roads. In the half-mile or so we went up the road we saw Black-chinned Sparrow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Black-headed Grosbeak. After our failed excursion, we headed back through the Garner Valley and drove random roads until we came across a flock of Pinyon Jays. After finally finding them we couldn't seem to get away from them, as we heard several other flocks. We took a drive up a not-so-rough dirt road, and, in some hills above the valley, I picked out an unfamiliar sparrow song. I had a hunch that it was a Sage Sparrow, and after listening to it on my iPod I was sure that's what it was. I eventually spotted it singing from the top of a bush close to the road and obtained some crummy photos.

At this point there wasn't much left to do in the mountains, so we cruised down Highway 74, past Hemet (another coffee stop was in order), and on to San Jacinto Wildlife Area. On our way there we came across a field filled with White-faced Ibis, along with four Cattle Egrets. I've never seen so many Ibis in one place before!

We took a quick spin through the auto tour loop at San Jacinto Wildlife Area. As I expected, there wasn't too much there, since most of the ducks and shorebirds have departed. However, I was surprised to find at least twenty Yellow-headed Blackbirds in one pond, the males displaying and giving their raucous calls. I also heard a Virginia Rail here.

We birded for a few more minutes at San Jacinto Wildlife Area before heading home. In a few days of camping we had accumulated a truly incredible amount of dust and muck on the car, inside and out. We quickly got the car unloaded and washed, much to my mom's relief (the van technically is her car, after all.) We saw some great birds (no lifers, but seven new species for Riverside County) and had a fun time hiking, grilling, birding, and adventuring. I can't wait to do it again.

1 comment:

Chris W said...

Hmm, I have photos of some of that, and I've seen some of those things. :D