Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Incredible Week

The week-long ABA/Leica Young Birder's Conference was far too short. From a purely sightings-based point of view, it was a rather humdrum week for me - I saw only two lifers: Pigeon Guillemot and Island Scrub-Jay. However, fun is certain to take place when you get eighteen sleep-deprived yet enthusiastic young birders in one place for a week.

One unique aspect of the conference was that many of the birders were from distant corners of the country, and irritatingly common birds to me such as Western Gull, Anna's Hummingbird, and Brown Pelican were all life birds for them. Not only was it fun to show these people lifers, but it was also fun to sock them once they added the species. My tradition of punching someone whenever they get a lifer showed itself again and again throughout the week, since some people got nearly one hundred life birds.

I will try to post up some reports and photos soon from the week.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Off to the YBC

Just now that I've gotten back into the regular swing of things after my family's vacation to Yosemite, I'm leaving again. Tomorrow I'm leaving for the American Birding Assocation/Leica Young Birder's Conference based in San Diego. Young birders from all over the country will be there, and we'll have a fun week of birding southern California (Santa Cruz Island and the Salton Sea are just a couple of the hot spots on the agenda.) I'm not expecting to see very many lifers (I'm predicting three), but I'll have plenty of fun laughing at the non-Californians as they get excited over Heermann's Gulls, Anna's Hummingbirds, and other backyard birds for me. It should be fun to hang out with other young birders as well. Keep an eye out for a report next week!

Also, I thought I'd quickly toss up some photos I took at Silverado Canyon this morning. I took a drive up there and found some interesting birds, including breeding Black-throated Gray Warblers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Mountain Quails, Dark-eyed Juncos, and others.

Clouds and fog often linger in Silverado Canyon, but once you climb high enough you break out into the sun.

Fog and clouds often obscure the road!

I tried taking Main Divide Road to the top of Saddleback, but the road became increasingly worse until I had to give up and turn around. Ford Windstars don't do too well on rough, rocky roads.

You must be careful not to drive over the edge of the road, or you will be treated to fine views of this as you plummet down.

Fog in the pine trees gives the place an eerie feeling.

I was pleasantly surprised to find several Black-throated Gray Warblers, including two singing males and a female carrying food. I don't think this species has ever been confirmed breeding in Orange County; the Orange County Breeding Bird Atlas lists it as a hypothetical breeder.

I stumbled upon a Dark-eyed Junco nest near Maple Springs. The nest was tucked under a small bush on a steep hillside, rendering it nearly invisible. The female, visible in the photo if you squint, was sitting on a nestful of tiny nestlings.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vacation Photos - Mono Lake

My family spent a couple days in the Mono Lake area after visiting Yosemite National Park. The charming town of Lee Vining was our headquarters. The descent from Tioga Pass to the Mono Lake Basin is dramatic - the Mono Lake side of the mountains is much drier, resulting in mostly low scrubby sagebrush and very few large trees. Here are some of my favorite photos from the Mono Lake region.

Welcome to Lee Vining. Despite its practically microscopic size, Lee Vining offers several motels and restaurants.

California Gulls are perhaps the most well-known bird at Mono Lake. Many thousands nest on the islands of the lake. This one one was sitting on a telephone pole in downtown Lee Vining, begging for french fries from tourists.

Nearby I found this recently fledged American Robin hunkered down in a small tree in a little park in Lee Vining. Pretty ugly.

The lake is very scenic; lovely views of it can be had from the back deck of the Mono Lake visitor center, which is first-rate.

The view of the lake was much the same the next day, except for some heavy-duty rainclouds over the opposite shore.

One evening my dad and I drove to Mono Lake County Park to look for some night birds. As the sun sank below the mountaintops to the west, the sky was bathed in gentle orange, pink, purple, and blue hues. From the boardwalk near the edge of the lake we observed Black-crowned Night-Herons, Wilson's Phalaropes, displaying Wilson's Snipes, and others.

Once it had gotten almost completely dark, we took a cruise down the small road next to the park. Dad spotted a Great Horned Owl on a distant snag, but it quickly flew off. Several Common Nighthawks were sitting in the middle of the road, occasionally flying up to catch low-flying moths. I was able to get a decent photo of one in the headlights since it landed right in front of the car.

The next morning, my dad and I work early and headed out to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake. Birds were active and the warm morning light provided good photo opportunities of birds and also the tufa (NOT tofu) structures
that line the lake's edge. Tufa structures are towers or lumps of rocky sediment that are formed around soda springs in the lake (at least, that's what I think; I'm not certain I'm remembering correctly, and I am too lazy to look it up.)

I was surprised to find several Brewer's Sparrows, a life bird for me just the day before, hopping along the lake's edge and picking small flies off the rocks.

Violet-green Swallows were abundant, and many rather tame individuals were sitting on the tufa structures. Violet-greens are my favorite swallows; they are so elegant and have beautiful colors, which this photo doesn't give justice to.

I tracked down a strange call note and found a Sage Thrasher sitting atop a nearby tufa structure. I was able to get some decent photos of it after it flew back down into the brush. Another life bird.

After returning to the hotel and getting some breakfast, my family and I drove to Bodie, a preserved ghost town about thirty miles northeast of Lee Vining. Bodie, in addition to having an interesting history (at one point it was the second-largest city in California), has a few decent birds. Sage Grouse supposedly frequent the area, but I couldn't find any. I did find Brewer's Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, Vesper Sparrows, and Mountain Bluebirds.

This Boisduval's Blue I found fluttering weakly around the sagebrush near Bodie was the only butterfly I found in the Lee Vining area. It was another new one for me.

Mountain Bluebirds were common in Bodie. I found several nests in crevices of dilapidated buildings in the town. This is a male.

After touring Bodie, we returned to the Mono Lake Visitor Center so my grandparents could see it. I roamed about outside while they looked at stuff inside. I noticed a bunch of twigs stuffed in a Cliff Swallow nest tucked under the eaves, and after a couple minutes of watching, my suspicions were confirmed: at House Wren had built its nest in an old swallow nest.

A few feet away, a real swallow peered out of its nest. There were several dozen nests on the building.

Some chipping in the nearby gardens brought my attention to two Costa's Hummingbirds that seemed to be engaged in a perpetual dispute. The two finally settled down after five minutes of fighting and chasing each other around. I was able to photograph this female from only five feet away.

We then returned to South Tufa so the rest of my family could see it. Storm clouds were gathering, but the sun continued to shine, providing great effects for photography. The lighting made Mono Lake look like the Caribbean!

A brief shower sent us packing back to the motel, but the rain soon stopped. I took advantage of the dryness and struck out on foot from the motel to wander around a bit. I was downright flabbergasted to come across a three Clark's Nutcrackers eating peanuts off someone's deck just a block from downtown. I'd never gotten a good look at a nutcracker before, so I spent twenty minutes following them around the adjacent campground. Normally I think of them as preferring remote rocky cliffs, but here were three of them hopping around lawns like robins and bathing in a birdbath!

Just before I had to head back to the motel for dinner, I found some very cooperative Brewer's Blackbirds and spent a few minutes photographing them. Oddly, they were extremely responsive to pishing, which is odd for blackbirds.

I had a lot of fun birding and photographing in the Mono Lake area. There were lots of birds to see, even though it wasn't the best time to go birding around there (later in the summer thousands of phalaropes and other shorebirds visit the lake.) Hopefully I'll be back there soon.

Vacation Photos - Yosemite

I took nearly a thousand photos over my family's week-long vacation in the Yosemite area. During the insipid drive home, I carefully reviewed them and ended up deleting half of them. It was still difficult to choose a manageable number of photos for a blog post. Here are twenty-five of my favorite photos, all from Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. My photos from Mono Lake will be along shortly. I have placed these photos in chronological order, so don't be baffled if I skip from bird to squirrel to landscape.

This fellow is a Douglas' Squirrel, also known as a Chickaree. Very reminiscent of a faded-out Red Squirrel, they reminded me of the hyperactive Red Squirrels that used to plague the feeders in my Michigan backyard.

These awe=inspiring giants are sequoias, the largest trees in the world. These particular individuals were at Sequoia National Park, but we saw a few others elsewhere.

A popular tourist attraction at Sequoia National Park is Moro Rock. A steep, narrow staircase takes you to the top of the commanding rock, and from the top the views are spectacular. It probably should not be climbed by those who suffer from vertigo! Few birds were up there, but I heard several Canyon Wrens and nearly got hit in the face by a pair of White-throated Swifts.

Because the trip was a family vacation, we didn't get going until nearly eight-thirty each morning, disastrously late for birding. By eight=thirty you've missed the best couple hours of the day for birds. Fortunately, the cabin in Fish Camp that we rented was situated in a place rich with birds. I wandered about for an hour or two each morning, finding birds such as Calliope Hummingbird, American Dipper, Mountain Quail, and MacGillivray's Warbler. I photographed these dewy pine needles one of those chilly early mornings.

Many would be surprised to learn that butterflies are attracted to mud. They often seek nutrients in damp soil or by streams. I photographed this colorful California Tortoiseshell at a patch of mud in a parking lot in Yosemite. A life butterfly for me, but I'm not counting!

This photo shows the same California Tortoiseshell as in the previous photo, but only the underside of its wings. Once the butterfly conceals that vibrant orange on the upperwing, it is difficult to spot against the mud!

A typical scene in the Yosemite Valley.

A classic view of Yosemite Valley. This particular view has undoubtedly been photographed literally billions of times.

The punk of the bird world, the Steller's Jay. On a hunch, I got a sack of peanuts and, sure enough, there were plenty of jays around the cabin to enjoy them. At least eight of them vied for nuts on the cabin deck, giving good photo opportunities.

Here's another Steller's Jay. Check out those blue stripes on the forehead!

This jay is performing a little jig!

I pished this lovely male MacGillivray's Warbler out of the brush near our cabin in Fish Camp. They are common breeders in the area; never before have I seen so many MacGillivray's Warblers.

Half Dome, as seen from Glacier Point.

This pretty yellow butterfly is a sulphur, most likely an Orange Sulphur. Sulphurs are the dowitchers of the butterfly world, and since I am a mere neophyte when it comes to such matters, I am not positive.

We were surprised to experience a few brief thunderstorms during our trip, but they didn't dampen our plans much. One evening, impressive thunderheads accumulated in the sky, creating a dramatic background for the sun-lit conifers across the highway from our cabin.

This is another photo from one of the early-morning rambles I took while the rest of my family either slumbered or ate breakfast. There is a small, sedge-lined pond in the center of the hamlet of Fish Camp, and at dawn this pond is cloaked by swirling mists.

Our time in the high country of Yosemite was dreadfully short. The rest of my family couldn't deal with the forty-degree temperatures, so I had little chance to find high-altitude species such as Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and American Pika (actually a mammal.) This is Tuolumne Meadows.

One creature of the high country that I actually did find was the Yellow-bellied Marmot. I saw many of these furry groundhog-like critters on a short hike to the soda springs near Tuolumne Meadows. This particular individual allowed close approach.

Yipes, really close approach! He did not move as I stalked toward his rocky fortress. As I got closer, I could not help but vividly remember the Killer Rabbit scene of Monty Python.

I finally drew so close to this wonderful guy that my camera couldn't focus. I could practically smell his breath, and he could probably smell mine.

Snow still adorned much of the high country. This stuff fuels those spectacular waterfalls that all the tourists gawk at in the Yosemite Valley.

We finally came to Tioga Pass, at nearly ten thousand feet of elevation, and exited the park. We briefly stopped and I looked around the rapidly-melting snowbanks for rosy-finches, but I had no luck.

I hope you enjoyed looking at these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them. I'll try to post my photos from the Mono Lake area soon.