Monday, July 11, 2016

Sierra Summer Birding Part I

Back in early June, Billy and I ditched the bay area and headed east into the Sierras. We were destined for Mono County, but to get there we had to endure the grotesque and horrible Yosemite National Park. Most people go to Yosemite Park, but I have a habit of just driving through it on the Lee Vining-Oakland commute. There are worse places to have to fact, most places are worse. We did stop and walk around a few random complaints about Mountain Quail, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Townsend's Solitaire, Nashville and MacGillivray's Warblers, Green-tailed Towhees...not to mention delicious, fresh mountain air. A few Mountain Bluebirds were taking in the air at Tuolumne Meadows (above).

This yellow-bellied marmot was holding it down at the meadows as well. Good luck getting this as a lowland vagrant.

Nothing was blooming in the meadows yet...a good portion was still under water. The marmot was probably still groggy from being asleep for months, unlike their Pika relatives who stay awake through the winter.

That afternoon and the following day was spent bouncing around Mono Basin...Vesper, Brewer's and Sagebrush Sparrows were quality year birds, and what I think was a Black-throated Sparrow (only sang once from a great distance away) was almost a nice year bird as well. Some Brant at Mono County Park (later seen at Rush Creek Delta on the south side of the lake) were pleasantly rare, and a bewildering number of Virginia Rails made a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds...they do more than just grunt, take that to heart. A couple random Geris (not birders) pointed out a Golden Eagle nest up Lundy Canyon, and thus I got my lifer Golden Eagle chick. The Grub showed us what he had been doing with the DeChambeau/County Ponds...I think he is determined to pull in some kind of meguh vague runt there some day, but he is currently content to nurture the sizable Yellow-headed Blackbird colony; a lone ibis and Blue-winged Teal were deec county birds for me. White-breasted Nuthatches of the Great Basin flavor were fairly common and scattered about, patiently waiting to be split into their own species. Looking for Black-backed Woodpeckers at a burn along Owens River Road was fruitless, but we did get White-headed Woodpecker, Bank Swallow and a weird sunbow (above).

That night I got hammered at the Mono Inn, which was entirely predictable.

The next morning we headed up to Virginia Lakes, which is heck of high, hella scenic and features one of the few decent Geribirding spots in the entire state. Mountain Chickadees were there (not shocking), and I hung out with this particularly confiding bird for a bit as it foraged close by.

Mountain Chickadee is my favorite chickadee...maybe from birding Lockwood Valley (Ventura County) as a kid, but I'm not entirely sure why. They sound superior to all other chickadees, in my opinion, and they've got that white eyebrow that sets them apart from everything else. Boreal Chickadees are cool, but all the others haven't built a cavity nest in my heart like Mountain Chickadees have. I guess I can't comment on Gray-headed Chickadee, but when the fuck am I going to see one of those?

Where there is Geribirding, there will be finches of some kind. Because Virginia Lakes is so damn high, Cassin's Finch was the only finch on the menu while we were there.

Living in Oakland the past few years, I don't get into high country often enough, so Cassin's Finches are still fun to look at...familiarity breeds contempt and all that. Note the classic streaking on the undertail coverts.

Take a gander at the length of those primaries...that is a bird built for wandering. You wouldn't want to get into a dispersing contest with a Cassin's Finch.

Clark's Nutcrackers were raging...I'm not sure if I'd seen so many at once before. It looked like whole family groups were coming in to eat peanuts.

Nutcrackers, as some of you know, are vital to the health of whitebark pine forests. It's not often you see a bird that essentially manages the forest you are standing in.

Judging by the short bill, this is a hatch year bird. It looks like there are a bunch of very fresh tertials growing in as well.

While Virginia Lakes is always dependable for nutcrackers, birders come here for another reason...Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. There is no better place in the state to see them in the summer without burning a few thousand calories in the process, which is very unappealing to most birders.

The Rosy-finches finally came in to the resort's feeder after almost two hours of waiting, and promptly got down to the business of gorging. It's not the most "natural" setting, but rosy-finches are crippling birds and they are damn hard to get to (at least in this state) so I'm not going to complain if they want to frolic in a pile of seed right in front of me.

Why there are so few pink-feathered birds is unbeknownst to me. It's a very fetching color on birds, especially passerines. Rosies are just killing it with the pink-black-gray-chocolate brown combo.

Speaking of combos, here is a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch-Least Chipmunk combo. Of all the avian and mammalian visitors to this Geribirding oasis, rosy-finches are probably the least wary of humans. It warmed my small, shriveled nerd-heart to see these creatures close up once much so that I am going to Colorado this month just to look at Brown-capped Rosy-Finches to keep that rosy flame burning. Well that is not the only reason, but it would be a damn fine year bird, no doubt about that. If I had a dollar for every day I've seen Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, I would dollar.

I would prefer to have two.


  1. Feeder rosies sound delightful. I should have tried that approach in MT.

    1. It is an interesting approach. No geri tactics will be employed in CO though.

  2. Love me that east side. Here's a future get for you: a lowland vagrant marmot.