Sunday, August 15, 2010
Sierras = Serious Fun
You could say it was love at first sight. My birding experiences in the Sierra Nevada have been very limited, but enough for me to thoroughly fall in love with this range. Sadly, the distance prevents us from establishing a deep relationship.
Now, every August my church holds a weeklong, family-oriented camp just outside Yosemite. It sounded fun (and the prospects of a bit of birding in the Sierras was alluring), so I hitched a ride up with friends (yup, my family wimped out of the camping...so much for family camp.)
The definite highlight was an epic hike to Cathedral Lake and Tresidder Peak. It wasn't a particularly long hike (just over five miles), but it was a 1900 foot climb to the peak and a 2100 foot drop to our end point. Add the fact that most of the hiking was off-trail complete with obstacles such as fallen logs, boulders, and snow banks to negotiate...
Perhaps it was a good thing birds were scarce on this hike; too many avian delights would have caused me to involuntarily lag behind. However, the hike still provided the best bird encounter of the trip. We had paused to catch our breath after a particularly steep segment (the nice thing about hiking at high elevations is you can blame any physical shortcomings on the elevation) when someone remarked, "Hey, look at the little Wild Turkey!"
Hold on a sec, pal. Wild Turkeys don't live in lodgepole pine forest at nine thousand feet. I whirled around and gaped.
Ever been so excited that you feel a tad dizzy? This only rarely happens to me-- so perhaps it was the elevation. This lovely chicken is a displaying male Sooty Grouse. I've searched for them many times with little success. I snagged a brief glimpse when I flushed one after a wild grouse hunt in the Greenhorn Mountains in July. That experience was so un-fulfilling that this second grouse felt like a life bird. Better, even. My friends watched with fascinated horror as I crawled around after the bird with my camera. It took them several minutes to pry me away.
The grouse would have been enough to make the hike entirely worthwhile, but the scenery competed with birds for sheer awe, if that's even possible. Words, photos, and telepathic communication cannot describe the majesty and beauty of these mountains. Do the hike yourself and tell me what you think. You'll be at loss for words for at least a week.
The hikes, as awesome as they were, weren't the only birding opportunities. I found sixty-one species on my daily morning rambles around camp at June Lake. Sixty-one juicy, delicious species like Northern Goshawk, Williamson's Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Virginia's Warbler, and Townsend's Solitaire.
Not included in the species tally were mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, trees, or Klingons. Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrels were ubiquitous around the campground.
The bird life around June Lake was an interesting mix of breeders and early migrants and dispersing birds from elsewhere. Yellow-rumped Warbler reproduction was evidenced by the abundant streaky juveniles puttering around after their heavily molting parents.
I enjoyed the numerous Brewer's Sparrows, a species I am privileged to see only intermittently. It wasn't unusual to see twenty in an hour of hiking from camp.
Perhaps my most unusual find at June Lake was this Virginia's Warbler. It seemed out of place, and a bit of research revealed that it was. Ephemeral breeding populations occasionally exist in this area, though this bird was more likely a wanderer from elsewhere.
The lake itself was rather dull for birding (but excellent for swimming and canoeing!) Small numbers of California Gulls commuted from Mono Lake to loaf on June Lake, supplementing the poor diversity of waterbirds: Mallard, Spotted Sandpiper, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and the occasional Osprey.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I neglected butterflies, only photographing the occasional one in passing. One of my favorites was this Sierra Sulphur. They were common up on the alpine tundra near Gaylor Lake.
If I neglected butterflies, I almost ignored plants. Ah, well.
I will conclude with a few maxims on camping. Never take showers when icy plunges into natural bodies of water are available. It's like cheating. Heck, it is cheating! Always have an abundant supply of tortillas, peanut butter, and bananas at your disposal. And finally, keep pine needles out of your sleeping bag.