Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sierra Bravo In The Sierras

The state list is often an important list, when you have been birding for a long time.  After it becomes difficult to get lifers on a regular basis without travelling absurd distances, the birder begins to realize the beauty of pursuing lists other than the all-important List of Life. It is another shot in the arm, a reminder to seek birds besides those that one has never seen. And so, the state list often becomes the second-tier list, a worthy list...even a source of pride for many people (how embarrassing). In many ways, I am no different than the average birder, although I am much better at finding and identifying birds (#7, hello).  I keep a state list.  My state list is very important to me. It's so important that I have seen most birds that regularly occur in the state, which is hella. It's hard to get state birds now, which is why I now squeeze joy out of life by seeing county birds.  I embarrassing...

But county birding is not why we are here...sorry to disappoint you nerds. When I was approached by one Amy Patten to make a quick, two day run to the Eastiern Sierra, I jumped at the chance. The Eastern Sierra is a special place, and I have a long and twisted history with the place known as Lee Vining. I am forced to keep going back, though it typically results in hangovers, and usually much yelling.  And although I'm sure you would like to hear more about the Yelling Club, that is not what I thought of when this opportunity came to be.

I thought of rosy-finches.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch has been the low-hanging, visually delicious fruit that I have been eyeing for years now. And by low-hanging, I mean they hang over 9,000 feet for a good piece of the year. In California, rosy-finches do not live where people live, so one must travel far (and wide) to seek them out. It turns out there are exactly two (2) places in the state where you can find a rosy-finch, with great ease, without having to embark on a high-elevation death march...or in my case, more like a wheezing walk that is a grim reminder of how out of shape I am and an all too real glimpse of my own mortality.

So after a night of drinking next to Lee Vining Creek, talking baseball with the Grub, and getting shitty morning coffee in Lee Vinging, it was up to Virginia Lakes for rosy-finching. The rosy-finches were mellow, despite their outward brilliance (look at those hot pink wings!).  Lounging on the deck of the store of the Virginia Lakes Resort, it was just a brief wait before this crippling beast came in for seed gobbling. The proprietors of the resort feed birds with reckless abandon, and a few rosy-finches come down from rocky slopes to gorge themselves on the regular.  The lady behind this operation told us that one in particular waits for her outside the door early every morning "and hovers around like a [goddamn] harrier" before she can even get the seed out, which appeared to be somewhat true...when someone came out on the porch where the seed was, instead of flying away sometimes this bird would just hover a few feet away and wait for the person to go back inside. So if you need an easy rosy-finch and enjoy some good geri birding, head up to Virginia Lakes.

For the first time since the Common Scoter, my state list has grown even more swollen and bloated. Sierra bravo! New Lower 48 bird! Lifer subspecies! Great success!

Rosy-finches weren't the only things taking advantage of the seed bonanza. Cassin's Finches were one of the most common birds there, which I was pretty stoked on. I've never seen so many so close before, and I have now rectified my chronic problem of not crushing Cassin's Finches. The cycle has been broken, and the Cassin's Finch has been crushed.  This is a juvenile, you can still see a few wisps of down on its crown.

Here is a male.  The lighting was kinda gnarly, but I'm pretty happy how geri photo sesh went considering I was baptizing a new lens.

It was really nice to be surrounded by Finches of Cassin, instead of Finches of House for a change. It was also cool to get blasted by a variety of Cassin's Finch vocalizations, since these days I get to hear them even more rarely I get to see them it seems. Getting rust on one's birding by ear skills is not something that I encourage, and I recommend avoiding it at all costs.

Hello White-crowned Sparrow.  But you are not just any White-crowned Sparrow, are not nuttalli, our coastal resident, nor are you of our other relatively common California subspecies, gambelii or pugentensis.  You breed in the Sierras, your bill is pink, and lord have mercy, your lores are black. Black as midnight on a moonless night, if you want to get scientific about it. This is oriantha, a bird of deserts and mountains, a White-crowned Sparrow that thinks making babies at 9,770 feet (the elevation of Virginia Lakes Resort) is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Here is a juvenile oriantha, a life plumage for me. Just look at those broad, dark lores...weird.

Damn, take a gander on the bill length of this White-breasted Nuthatch. It's obscene, and I am still struggling to come to grips with it.  This is a member of the Rocky Mountain subspecies (subspecies group?), which sounds absolutely nothing like WBNU in most of California. They have a very narrow range in the state; on the weekend we had them here at Virginia Lakes and further south in Lee Vining Canyon.

For your edification: beneath all the birdlife was a writhing swarm of jiggling Belding's Ground Squirrels.

A walk around part of Saddlebag Lake was not particularly birdy, but had a major highlight in this Pika. A Pika! I've never seen one in California before, and actually pished this one up. That branch to the right is destined to become part of its larder, but with all the greenery the Pika had scattered around on the rocks it didn't look like it was in a hurry to get organized.

Some birds don't like feeders.  Some birds are hard to geri bird. Green-tailed Towhee is one such bird, and is another species I was happy to add to the old year list over the weekend.  Their mellow songs and mild disdain for people brings back many memories of birding Mount Pinos when I was a kid...when lifers were easy to come by, I misidentified birds more often, and I couldn't fucking drive.

And here is a somehat-unsure-of-itself juvenile/fledgling that was following the above adult around. Like the young White-crowned Sparrow above, this bird won't wear this plumage for very long. This also reminds me of being a teenage birder, but for complicated and mostly embarrassing reasons.

Unlike month-old towhees, lilies are very sure of themselves. This is a Sierra Tiger Lily, growing next to a stream at Virginia Lakes.  It is a small lily, modest in size, but big on facemelt. Thanks botany girls for the ID.

Here's a Mariposa lily, I forget what kind, it real pretty though.  A state rich in Calorchortus is a rich state indeed...not sure if I've seen this one before, it was up at Saddlebag Lake.

I'm not a butterfly nerd, but since some of you are here is some kind of copper to gawk at.

The mighty Clark's Nutcracker can be heard bellowing the pines on distant slopes. It is one of the quintessential sounds of the mountains. These birds are one of the most interesting species (bizarrely accurate recall abilities, ties to whitebark pine, etc)  that reside in high elevations, and thankfully they usually aren't very difficult to find. Oh, my friend Jill saw one swallow a Junco fledgling the other day, so they do that too.

The rarest thing we saw over the weekend was a marriage proposal. That is when I learned that proposing in public with all your friends (there were a bunch more dudes lurking out of the frame) awkwardly watching from extremely close range is a thing now. We were actually geri birding when we saw this...geri birding is so good.


  1. That nutcracker tale is blowing my mind.

  2. Great post; beautiful series of photos!

  3. Yeeeah get higher baby.

    Fabulous crushes--the new lens might be a career-maker.
    That's crazy about the CLNU. I wonder if it remember where it stashed all of its other Juncos?

  4. people in michigan township bird it's true

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  6. I'm still all weird about the clark's eating junco incident. PIKA!!