Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sierra Summer Birding Part II

Ahhh...this next batch of blogs is going to be very refreshing. Refreshing like how this Osprey feels when diving into a lake at 9,770 feet at Virginia Lakes. You see, I've largely managed to escape the "summer doldrums" this year, which is an important thing to avoid if you want to keep your birding sanity. Mountains have everything to do with it, not to mention early fall shorebirds...but that is for a later post. For now, its back to the Sierras.

After breakfast with the rosy-finches, Billy and I rolled down to the Bodie Hills to track down Pinyon Jays and Juniper Titmice. A jay abided, the tits did not. We did get a quality wildflower show, and Billy managed to find a solitaire nest under a boulder...a lifer nest! After leaving the hills, it was north to Bridgeport Reservoir, which I hadn't birded in many years. The south end was very birdy and coughed up a few county birds, the best of which was a distant Bald Eagle. In the afternoon Lee Vining Creek Delta (just north of Lee Vining, on Mono Lake) relinquished a few more interesting birds, in the form of Whimbrel, Caspian Tern, and some Great-tailed Grackles.

The following day we birded along the south shore of the lake and the "Mono Mills" area. Navy Beach was hella birdy, but since it was early June the diversity of species was abhorrent. Bleak, but as all the local birders must know, the potential here is real.

All in all it was a solid trip. We birded, we camped, we drank, we transported Art, and I turned 34. I'll just put up some photos now.

MacGillivray's Warblers were everywhere in the mountains. This bird was vigorously singing at our campground in Lee Vining Canyon, former home of The Grub. The Grub now lives at a nearby undisclosed location, where he has hummingbird feeders up that are currently being very well attended. That's right, The Grub has become a Geribirder.

This bird had raging hormones and let me approach as close as I could while it sang away...pretty crippling looks, probably the best I'll have of the bird this year. And who was MacGillivray you ask? William MacGillivray was a Scottish ornithologist. John James Audubon was his bro (brornithologist), and named the bird after Willie Mac. The species was actually discovered by John Kirk Townsend (of solitaire and warbler fame).

This Gray Flycatcher was south of Mono Lake, just west of the big Jeffrey Pine forest, out in the sage flats. We also had another Pinyon Jay out here, which is pretty typical despite the fact that we don't associate them with treeless areas.

As the #7 U.S. birder (according to the Global Birder Ranking System), I have something to admit to you all...aside from Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher is the easiest Empidonax to identify north of Mexico. Think about it...Willows look like Alders, Leasts can look like all sorts of things, Duskies look like Hammond's, Pacific-slopes and Cordillerans are identical, Yellow-bellieds can look like Leasts and Westerns, and Acadians can resemble all manner of things if seen poorly enough. Unlike these other species, Gray Flycatchers look incredibly my experience they display little variability in color of the lower mandible and overall plumage. The long bill, dull color, stubby primaries, and amount of orange/yellow in the bill are very dependable field marks...the most variable field mark to me is the eyering, which can be weak to moderately bold. I reckon it is a pretty easy bird to identify, even without their distinctive summer/winter habitat preferences and tail-dipping habit that a lot of birders like to key in on.

The Jeffrey Pine forest south of Mono Lake was carpeted in Dwarf Monkeyflower. It was most mellow. This is a Pinyon Jay stronghold, the most reliable place to get them that I can think of. I imagine that every Pinyon Jays knows of this place, for it is sacred to them.

Huge blankets of the stuff turned the forest floor pink. Facemelting.

I thought this was a boldly-marked Sagebrush Lizard at the time, but now am not so confident about that. Birding is hard.

The Mono Basin is filled to the brim with Sage Thrashers in spring and summer. Funny how out-of-range Sage Thrashers tend to be so approachable, but they have always kept their distance from me in the places they "belong". One thing is for certain though...they belong in my heart.

Absurd numbers of Violet-green Swallows breed around Mono Lake. Tufa towers make very good homes apparently.

They also make good perches. For crushing. This Violet-green is not only sitting on is being framed by tufa. Does anyone want to see my exif data for this photo? This was not in Colorado. And if any of you get that joke, my work is done here.

Ok, my work is almost done here. I'll leave you today with an excerpt from William Dawson, who has no equal in the realm of birdwriting.

What shall we do for the Violet-green Swallows? Simply this: we will call them children of heaven. 

To appear to the best advantage, this child of heaven should be seen on a typical California day, burning bright, when the livid green of back and crown may reflect the ardent glances of the sun with a delicate golden sheen. The violet of upper tail-coverts and rump comes to view only in changing flashes; but one catches such visions as a beggar flung coins, and adds image to image until he has a full concept of this rainbow hue. At such a time, if one is clambering about the skirting of some rugged precipice in Yosemite, he feels as if the dwellers of Olympus had come down in appropriate guise to inquire his earth-born business. Not, however, that these lovely creatures are either meddlesome or shrewish. Even when the nest is threatened by the strange presence, the birds seem unable to form any conception of harm, and pursue their way in sunny disregard. Especially pleasing to the eye is the pure white of the bird's underparts, rising high on flanks and cheeks, and sharply contrasting with the pattern of violet and green, in such fashion that, if Nature had invited us to "remold it nearer to the heart's desire," we must have declined the task. 


  1. Hey - if you are still in the Basin, did you get a chance to see the Magnificent Frigate at Crowley? it was there yesterday 7/27/16

    1. I was on the east side back in June...MAGNIFICENT record for the county!

  2. That Dawson excerpt is beautiful; what book/paper/etc is it from?

    (Also, I didn't get the joke—any chance you could explain it for me? :) )

    1. The Birds of California, published in 1921!

      You may want to google "swallowgate" and see what comes up.

  3. Mountains are the way to do it in the summer. Not sure I've seen an Osprey in front of snow before, nice one. Please tell me you're calling Billy "Billy Mac" now.