Sunday, July 7, 2013

Return To Mount Pinos

Recently my dad and I ditched the lowlands and lurked up into the mountains for a change of pace. I needed a dose of high-elevation species, so we headed up to Mount Pinos, which straddles the Ventura/Kern County line in southern California. I used to bird there quite a bit back in the day, when I couldn't ear bird worth shit and I was much lower than Number 7 in the country. I got a lot of life birds up there.

While Mount Pinos isn't exactly a crowded birding destination, it does top out at close to 9,000 feet. Many high elevation specialties are found, including species (that I've never seen there) like Calliope Hummingbird and Northern Goshawk; not easy birds in Southern California. The Mount Pinos area used to even have Sooty Grouse (now extirpated); this was the southern limit of their historic range. The last wild California Condors were captured here; they have since fared better than the doomed grouse, and a very lucky birder again has the chance to glass one from the mountaintop.

I was really hoping to get my Ventura County Red Crossbills, and agonizingly had a flock fly over just a few hundred feet from the county line. Life is pain. It was a good day though; birds were pretty much everywhere we went and the year birds were easy to find.

My proximity to this Olive-sided Flycatcher was too much to bear. It was not in good light, and it was sitting on a dumb Forest Service sign, but my camera was smoking by the time I finished rendering the poor bird two-dimensional. This is the one and only kind of its species that I've seen over the years that seemed accustomed to people.

I love the primary extension. This otherwise chunky bird is built to fly far...and decimate large insects.

Ah, the Thick-billed Fox Sparrow. For years, it has been rumored that Fox Sparrows would be split into multiple species, but I think the lines between them appear to be too muddled to do so in any simple way. The form of Fox Sparrow that breeds on Mount Pinos and the rest of southern California is P.i. stephensi.

Fox Sparrows are gifted singers, one of the best birds to hear in the high clearings and edges of mountain meadows. They trigger a flood of nostalgia juices whenever I hear their rich songs; it's a sound that stays with you through the years.

Thick-billed Fox Sparrow is actually comprised of multiple subspecies. They are the most range-restricted group of Fox Sparrows, essentially being confined to Oregon, California and northern Baja California. Thick-billeds are the only breeding type in most of California, although Slate-coloreds do breed in a small part of Inyo County.

There is no bird quite like a Clark's Nutcracker. Their grating shrieks are a welcome sound in the hallowed high-elevation coniferous forest. Even the pine trees themselves love the nutcrackers.

Clark's Nutcrackers are reliable at Mount Pinos in small numbers. In spring and summer they typically stay near the top of the mountain, above Iris Meadow. In fall and winter they can be lower, but I think birders are generally too damn lazy to go up the mountain when its cold.

Aside from being charismatic and noisy, nutcrackers are prodigious seed cachers, specializing in Whitebark Pine. An individual nutcracker will cache tens of thousands of Whitebark Pine seeds every year, and have demonstrated the ability to remember exactly where seeds have been stored for up to 9 months. Not only is this an amazing feat in and of itself, but the big picture is that Whitebark Pine seeds only germinate when removed from the cone by Clark's Nutcrackers and cached in the soil. The two species have evolved together and are almost completely dependent on one other for survival. Pretty cool I reckon.

Look at this anonymously-garbed bastard. You know what it is...right? Right? I like how the pine needles in the background give the bird a kind of luminescent, deityish look.

The last thing I expected to find above treeline was a vast shrubscape littered with unkempt, recently-fledged Sage Sparrows. I have never seen so many Sage Sparrows. They were everywhere, outnumbering the Green-tailed Towhees, the Chipping Sparrows, the Dark-eyed Juncos, the Cassin's Finches, the Clark's Nutcrackers. Nary an adult was to be seen...what a bizarre phenomenon.

Sage Sparrow is the only sparrow that sprints across openings with it's tail held high in the air. Why they evolved this highly-entertaining habit is anybody's guess. 


  1. Clark's nutcrackers are all around the Mono place I've been surveying. They rock. Haven't given me any good photos yet, though.

    Perhaps Sage Sparrows always wanted to be Roadrunners?

    1. Mmmmmmmmmmmono. Hope the nutcrackers mellow out for you.

  2. That Sage Sparrow photo is hilarious, I had no idea they did that. Seriously, WHY?!