Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Every birder celebrates his new birds differently; I am no exception. Two timeless rituals accompany my lifers. Actually, both have specific, if not relatively recent, origin, but both have become honored tradition. The first, bestowing a hearty slug to the arm of the companion lucky enough to add a new lifer, originated at the 2009 Young Birder's Conference in San Diego. The second, that of butchering and devouring a hapless pineapple in celebration of another species defeated, was conceived by my old mate Tim last summer as we rampaged the countryside of California. Sadly, I have come to a point in my life where lifers have become about as scarce as affordable gas prices.
One thorn remained in my side from last summer. My aforementioned friend Tim abandoned me last August and journeyed to Lake Crowley, slaying the mythical Greater Sage-Grouse without my permission. The wound festered all winter, becoming dreadfully infected and oozing pus at ever-increasing rates as time wore on. Finally, I decided the situation needed to be rectified.
I spent the entirety of last week camping on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas with a group from my church, and, as fortune would have it, Lake Crowley lay a mere half-hour to the south. Accompanied by Alison, my companion of a romantic nature, I embarked before dawn on Monday, bound for the lake.
Girlfriend birding is much like ordinary birding, except one receives a considerably greater amount of flak about missing turns, misidentifying birds, or being hungry forty minutes after lunch than one would birding with comrade. Additionally, there are other inevitable distractions, but I won't dwell on those. I hadn't really researched the layout of the lake, so it took a couple drives up and down the highway and a brief interrogation of a marina worker at the south end of the lake until we found our way to the proper location, Benton Crossing Road at the northern end of the lake. There, we found dire warnings of the imminent presence of our treacherous quarry and knew that the hunt was now in full throttle.
My strategy had been to aimlessly drive around until we found the grouse along a road somewhere--at least, that is how my precursor Tim had succeeded. After almost an hour of futile driving, a new strategy seemed to be in order. None was immediately obvious, but my scheming was interrupted by a roadside Yellow-headed Blackbird. Rolling down the windows, I remarked something about how this spot smelled productive and threw my trusty Taurus into park. It was tranquil and picturesque--a small stream meandered through a verdant cow pasture. Sage ringed the edges of the pasture. The Yellow-headed Blackbird, however, seemed to be a false indicator. There was nothing of interest, unless cows, Brewer's Blackbirds, and Cliff Swallows could be considered interesting. About to turn back to the car, I took one last scan of the field and noticed a grouse-like lump among the cows.
And it was, indeed, a Greater Sage-Grouse, or, more accurately, six Greater Sage-Grouse. I turned and daintily punched Alison's arm. She retaliated with a slug more intense by a factor of at least ten. This bit of business out of the way, we ventured out into the pasture for better looks, braving sharp sage branches, cow patties, and the potentially belligerent cows themselves. We suffered nothing more serious than lightly soiled feet, and in return enjoyed the company of sixteen Greater Sage-Grouse at close range.
This location seems to be a haunt for these grouse--I'd imagine they enjoy grazing among the cows for the succulent grass along the stream.
We saw the birds from Owen River Road near the one-lane bridge, which can be accessed by taking Pit Road north from Benton Crossing Road, turning west on Owen River Road, and then turning north again on Owen River Road.
And no, we did not forget the second tradition. After an hour of grouse appreciation, we returned to our steed the Taurus and unearthed a pineapple from the disastrously messy backseat. The unfortunate pineapple again and again tasted the bite of my pocketknife, and we, in turn, gnawed on the doomed fruit's juicy flesh. The old wound has been drained, cleaned, and bandaged.