Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Woods Lake and Carson Pass: A High Elevation Megapost

You know, I've done so little blogging this year that I could really blog about anything at this point, there's a lot to work with...I've been seeing some nice rarities this fall, clobbering county birds (my Santa Clara list will soon surpass my San Francisco list, which I know you don't care about in the slightest but is crazy to me), maintaining yard vigilance (Foxtrot Oscar Foxtrot Fox Sparrow for the yard this morning) and planting native goodness, and I finally watched Pelican Blood, probably the most interesting movie involving birding that I've seen...although despite ample drug use it did not surpass the amount of cocaine consumed in Rare Bird.

I could make fun of birders, which is always necessary and something readers love.

Those topics will have to wait though. I'm going to go with covering a trip I took to the Sierra Nevada this summer. It wasn't a full on birding trip but the avian haul was high grade. The original plan was to go back to Mono County with the fam, see some east side spots and hang out with The Grub, but the massive Ferguson fire was in full effect and the area was effectively smoked out. Considering we were bringing a toddler with us, that didn't sound so great (we will try again next year Grub) so I scrambled to find another area that would make for a good camping trip that both didn't need reservations and wasn't being besieged by smoke from wildfires. With the help of eBird (specifically looking at Pine Grosbeak observations), some web browsing and hitting up people on Foxtrot Bravo I settled on the Carson Pass area, camping at Woods Lake in Alpine County, an area I was totally unfamiliar with.

It worked out really well - some smoke moved in and out of the area each day but the air was leaps and bounds cleaner than the garbage air we drove through to get there, and there were even campsites available. Billy was pleased with the choice, and Annie was confused but eventually became pleased as well. Yet again #7 proved himself a master birding tactician, and great at family planning as well (get it???).

Let's jump into the birding. As expected at the beginning of August, some areas in the high country held numerous neotropical migrants staging for the long haul south, or already on their way. Wilson's Warblers (top and above) were one of the more common species. This one here has almost no black in the crown whatsoever, which I don't see often with this species.

There were Yellow-rumped Warblers galore, common breeders in the area. It's always a jolt to go from months of no Yellow-rumps to being back in the thick of them again, in a completely different habitat than where you see them the rest of the year. Many of the adult birds we encountered, Yellow-rumped and otherwise, were really haggard looking.

Lots of adult Yellow-rumps were toting around loud, begging juveniles like this one.

Fox Sparrows were not as numerous as I thought they would be but this one teed up nicely in response to my mediocre pishing. This is the thick-billed subspecies.

The nesting oriantha White-crowned Sparrows up there have black lores and reddish bills, and hold it down in mountain meadows. Stylish and bucolic.

A major target bird for me was Williamson's Sapsucker, because they are fantastic and I don't get to see them very often. As you can see, great success! I like sapsuckers and this is the best sapsucker. I'm glad I don't have to relive the time in my life when I had yet to see one, what with the constant gnashing of teeth and painful spasms that afflicted me, as well as most people who have yet to see this poignant species.

On the trail to Winnemucca Lake (from Carson Pass) I found this Empidonax, which I thought was a bright/fresh Gray at the time but looking at photos afterward I think is more likely a bright/fresh Dusky. The bill length, eyering, and head shape (in the first photo) all look better for Dusky to me, but opinions are welcome.

This trail was all very legit and scenic and flowery, but the trail got super crowded later in the morning. Do check it out but hit the trail early or later in the day if you go during summer.

One afternoon we drove down to Kirkwood Lake to check it out. Just off the highway, Billy spotted a pair of Sooty Grouse! Sooty Grouse is a bird that I have not encountered in a long time...a long time. It had been over a decade since I've seen one, which is far too long to go without seeing this splendid grouse. This is the first time I've seen them in the Sierras.

Even though they were just lurking on the shoulder of the road, I am absolutely sure I would not have noticed them Billy not called them out. So much for #7...anyhow, I was stoked to reconnect with these finely patterned friends. While they can't really be considered rare in most of their range in California, they are exceptionally unreliable in most areas. Even booming grouse are notoriously hard to spot. You don't find Sooty Grouse, Sooty Grouse finds you, and usually while you are in a car and unprepared.

As I mentioned, I wanted to find Pine Grosbeaks. Not just because I had a craving for Pine Grosbeak, but because it was my last "easy" bird I needed for the precious California list. After many years of waiting the bird gods had mercy on me, and I saw them over and over again on this trip. I saw them down by Woods Lake, in the Woods Lake campground, on the Woods Lake entrance road, and near the trailhead by Carson Pass. It was brilliant. The first one we saw flopped down to the ground a few feet away from us while we were standing next to a bathroom at the campground.

After that I made sure to take my crusher whenever I went to the bathroom, which ended up working perfectly when I found this confiding male cruising around on the ground. I've read that they are approachable and now I know it to be true. Few state birds have been so welcoming and affable, and their hospitality made me forget, however briefly, that life is pain.

The final Pine Grosbeak encounter featured a family group - here is one of the fresh juveniles.

Here is mom Pine Grosbeak stuffing it full of something while it flaps crazily.

Mom Pine Grosbeak is a lot more worn looking than her grosbeak child, with a more richly colored head.

Wow! Talk about getting the complete Pine Grosbeak experience. Things may never be the same...

Now that we covered the birds well, lets check out some small stuff. For example, this fly is small. And super hairy.

Looking at a plant book, I'm guessing the super hairy fly is on mountain-pennyroyal, but rest assured I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to plant ID.

Ranger's buttons were an abundant and becoming wildlflower. The pollinators also found them very becoming.

Ooooh waspy thing just shoving its face shamelessly into an inflorescence.

I know next to nothing about butterflies, but I do like them. Here is a pleasant small thing.

Another pleasant small thing.

Little elephant's head was a lifer flower. These were growing on the south side of Woods Lake.

These monkeyflowers looked happy about something. A little too happy if you ask me.

While there are a seemingly endless supply of smug looking yellow monkeyflowers out here in the west, I'm pretty sure this huge flashy lavender one was new for me. They probably aren't uncommon or anything (though we only saw a few, at one stream crossing) but they left an impression on me. I reckon this is Lewis's monkeyflower, or at least something very similar.

I don't reckon what this is whatsoever. No reckoning to be found here, just total ignorance. Found a tiny patch of whatever the hell this is on the south side of Woods Lake as well.

I think this is an alpine lily? Small blossoms, short petals, hella high elevation. A high quality wildflower.

Before I forget, yes Woods Lake was great; this epic rockslide is visible from the south side of the lake. Thanks everyone who recommended it. Good birding, easy Pine Grosbeaks, lots of trails, lots to explore nearby, heckof scenic, many wildflowers on the west and south sides of the lake. Mosquitoes were no problem either, though I can see that situation being different earlier in the summer....oh and there were a lot of different bats too, at least a couple kinds, including some big ones that were larger than hoary but smaller than Townsend's big-eared...pallid bats perhaps? Anyways really good batting and stargazing, which would have been even better had I not forgotten to bring bourbon....STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID.

Speaking of stupid, we had some total wankers camping next to us the entire time (hella loud, and I got to hear about how one of the kids thought the earth was flat because Kyrie Irving said least the other loud kids thought he was crazy). That said on the last night I figured out they weren't that bad compared to the total nightmare camping apocalypse situation going on at a campsite further away, which I think would have driven me to do terrible things if I were unlucky enough to camp next to their "party", if it could be called that.

On the way to Meiss Meadows, a known wildflower mecca, we found these pinedrops, which apparently get their nutrients from fungi associated with the roost systems of plants. We were a little late for the peak wildflower scene this year (we were there the first week of August) but there was still a lot blooming. We probably could have found more in the way of wildflowers at Meiss but Annie was feeling the elevation so we didn't loiter for as long as we could have - the birding by that little pond was good though, featuring my first Wood Duck above treeline.

Good times and good views from up at Meiss, though the encroaching smoke didn't help.

My happy campers. Annie looks very impressed by it all.

Phew. I'm not sure if I've ever put this many photos in one post before, might be a BB&B first. Thanks for sticking with me, see you soon nerds.


  1. Dude!! Nice Sierra Arctic Blue (if that is what it is still called)! Only in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada and southern Oregon. The copper is either a Lilac-bordered or a Purplish Cooper but am underwing shot would help. I think probably a Lilac-bordered, though....

    1. Thanks ROFO, apreesh. Didn't get the underwing of the copper.

  2. Oh hell yeah, this is a great post. Worth the IG post clickbait. I had no idea little elephant's head was a thing and that is very exciting. That flower after the Lewis's monkeyflower looks like a wintergreen, kind of like one-sided but I'm not sure. Lastly, amazing grosbeak photos! The only ones I've seen were in 2010 and I called them things like white-winged crossbill and western tanager. Sigh.

    1. One-sided wintergreen. That sounds like a fancy kind of gum. This is gum?

      Prior to this siege of grosbeaks I had only seen them once before, I think it was actually right after I met you. Thank you for this insight into 2010JEN.

    2. I do remember a time when it was one of the few birds I had on you. Thank god for mexi-chats.

  3. A lovely assemblage. Jen has it right - that's Orthilia secunda, one-sided wintergreen. The little yellow monkey is Mimulus primuloides, primrose monkeyflower (but the Mimulus taxonomy is about to change dramatically). Your waspy thingy is one of the parasitics, a Horntail, that sticks its long ovipositor through wood to lay eggs in other insects nests. You may have heard of them - some are called "stump-effers."

    I was in Mono County that week. You chose wisely. It sucked awful. Dense smoke and thunderstorms with daily road closures.

    1. Stump-effers....that nickname is new to me and absolutely glorious. I suspected this was indeed a stump-effing creature but did not know how they were classified - "horntail" is new to me as well...helpful but not hilarious. Thanks for the Orthilia confirmation.

      Yeah we were just out of reach of thick smoke, it worked out really well, bummed to miss out on going to Mono two years in a row though.