Snow, Sage, and Dancing Chickens

Posted by ardeidae on June 04, 2006

The Sierra Nevada mountain range (often referred to as simply "The Sierra" or "The Sierras") stretches 400 miles, running along the eastern central part of California. The Sierra range holds three national parks. Yosemite National Park is the northern most of the three parks and was extensively photographed by Ansel Adams starting in the 1920s. Kings Canyon National Park was created in 1940, thanks largely to Adams' photographs and successful lobbying of Congress. Sharing miles of boundry with Kings Canyon to the south is Sequoia National Park. Named for the giant sequoia trees it protects, it was the second national park created in California. The Sierra range is also home to Mount Whitney. With an elevation of around 14,500 feet, it's the highest peak in the United States outside Alaska.

Just to the east of The Sierras are the White Mountains. Though the range has an elevation of 14,246 feet, the larger Sierras soak up most of the moisture from Pacific storms, leaving the White Mountains fairly dry. Within this range is Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest which hosts the oldest known living trees on earth, with some over 40 centuries old. Yeah, that's right...over 4000 years old!

Between the Sierras and the White Mountains is the Owens Valley with various lakes, rivers, and streams. Combined with the surrounding mountains, this area is a wonderful array of diverse habitats, providing an amazing place for birding and just plain sightseeing.

Last year, Carol and I had gone to the eastern Sierras on a field trip led by the Los Angeles Audubon Society. We had such a great time, when this trip came back around, we couldn't dare pass up the opportunity to return. When the trip for April 8 and 9 was announced, we immediately made our reservations and motel arrangements in Bishop. There are many great things about Bishop, but one of my favorites is Erick Schat's Bakker├┐, home of the Chili Cheeze Bread, a big, flat, round loaf made with jalapenos and cheese. It's pure goodness. If you're ever there, make sure to pick some'll see what I mean. Even if you're not a fan of chilis, there's plenty of other breads, cakes, and candies to choose from.

Northern Flicker
Early Saturday morning we all met for breakfast at Jack's Waffle Shop in Bishop. After everyone in the group had introduced themselves, we had a quick rundown on what we were expected to see. It was our leader Mary Freeman's fifteenth year of leading the trip. At 7:45am, we loaded up and took off. Our first stop was the small residential community of Aspendell.
Steller's Jay
At an elevation of 8000 feet, snow was aplenty. It was about 40 degrees, sunny, and calm. As we pulled into Aspendell, we caught a quick glimpse of our first bird of the day, a California Quail (Callipepla californica) hanging out around the thin trees by the side of the road. We stopped and parked. Since Mary and her husband, Nick, had been to the area many times, they knew the residents and the birds that hung around their feeders. There were plenty of birds around, and what a variety it was! Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) were perched high up on the trees. Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus), Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), and Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) all fluttered about. A Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) whizzed past us and landed just long enough to pick up a few straggling peanuts left out in the snow by a neighbor. It flew off with its prize, only to return a few minutes later.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
It wasn't long until there were three of the birds dashing back and forth looking for food. A Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) flew in for a few knocks. The Grey-crowned Rosy-Finches (Leucosticte tephrocotis) that we had come to see were flittering about, pecking around under the feeder to catch some of the fallen seed. We walked around the corner of the block and added American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea), and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Not a bad way to start the day!
Sierra and White mountains
Sierra (left) and
White (right)
As we headed back down the mountain, we stopped for a great view, and a Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) way out in the distance. I grabbed a few scenery shots. As we came back into Bishop, we had a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fly right over us. We were able to pull over and not scare away a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) that set on a fence. I managed to snap off a few shots before it took off. Unfortunately, it wasn't until then that I realized my f-stop was still set high for the scenery shots I had just taken, resulting in slow shutter speed and, consequently, blurred bird. Every time I do this I kick myself. With the opportunity to get a great shot of this beautiful endemic bird, it was a valuable lesson learned...again.

We then headed up Highway 6 to Chalfant Valley in search of raptors. It wasn't long until we found them. The first was a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) flying low in search of a meal. We stopped and scouted the fields where we caught sight of a Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) also cruised past us. We got back in our cars, but not for long, as a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sat on an irrigation wheel in on of the fields. We watched it for a good 15 minutes before we continued on. As we drove continued up the 6, a Swainson's Hawk was perched on a fence right by the side of the road. Carol and I slowed down a bit to get a good look, but had to continue on to catch up with the group. We stopped once again to scan the fields. The valley was almost completely flat, with the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains to the east. I snapped off a few more shots so I could take the mountains home with me. We ran across a couple more hawks, but also added Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). We turned around and headed back towards Bishop. There were a few birds in the air, which we identified as Swainson's Hawks. Mary noticed something sticking out of its back and thought it could be a transmitter.

Swainson's Hawk
After a few minutes of watching, we continued on. Guess what...that Swainson's Hawk was still perched on the post. We were able to slow to a stop without scaring it away. I got a few dozen shots of it before it decided it was tired of being stared at and flew off. I had to kick myself again. Once more, I was in a hurry to get the shot and failed to notice I had been shooting at f32. At least this time, the shots didn't suffer as much as the last ones. Guess I better stick to shooting birds. Or maybe I'll just get another D200. smile

Barn Swallow
After heading back down Highway 6, we turned onto Five Bridges Road and up to Nik & Nik's gravel quarry, stopping first at the larger pond. Out on the water were Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), and Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris). A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) hopped around in a tree next to the pond, and a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) stopped in for a quick visit. Nearer to the quarry is a marshy area, where a greater variety of birds were hanging out. Among them were American Coot (Fulica americana), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). Another pond right next to the quarry building hosted a Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata). There were swallows all about. We were able to identify Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia), and Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). Not too shabby for a single location! The zippy and zaggy flight patterns of swallows make them hard to photograph in the air, but I snapped off a few shots. And since I wasn't shooting at f32 this time, some of them even turned out in focus!

We all piled back into our cars and headed down Chalk Bluff Road and caught the 395 north to find ourselves a Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). About a half hour into the drive, we were back into snow country. The roads were clear, but snow lined both sides of the road. The air was so brisk and clean. After about another half hour, we turned onto Highway 120, on the south side of Mono Lake. We were on our way to a coniferous forest that had burned years ago. Last year we were successful in locating the elusive bird, but this year, we were out of luck before we even had a chance.

Sage Thrasher
The road to the forest was gated off due to the heavy amount of recent snowfall. We were disappointed, but it gave us a little extra time to stop at the South Tufa Area of Mono Lake to take a quick late lunch. A few of us had already had a little something on the way up, so we took the opportunity to scout the scrub.
Sage Sparrow
Sage Thrashers (Oreoscoptes montanus) were known to be around, and it didn't take too long until we heard one calling. We quickly located it on top of some brush and got in close enough for some good shots. It took off after a couple minutes and flew across a little road. We followed it to where it had landed, but it ended up eluding us. Or maybe it magically turned into the Sage Sparrow that flittered about and landed long enough to pose for some good photos. We were soon called back since we still had one more stop to make, the main reason for coming to the eastern Sierras this time of year. We got back into our cars and headed back south.

After about a half hour on the road, we passed the Mammoth-June Lake Airport and came upon our church landmark where we turned off Highway 395 toward Lake Crowley. The entrance that we took last year into the lake was snow covered so we sent in a 4x4 to see how deep the snow was and determine if the cars in our group would be able to make it through. After going about 50 yards, the truck's backup lights went on and it came out the same way it went in. So we decided to try another path, which turned out to be completely clear. We were able to get to the gate that led to our prize spot, but our target bird wasn't yet to be found. We were still about a half hour early, so part of the group continued on to the south part of the lake to see if they spot a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I stayed behind to try to catch our target bird arrive, but they remained elusive. I wasn't skunked though, a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) sat and kept me company. After about 20 minutes or so, the group returned and we headed to our spot, a lek populated by the dancing chicken...formally known as the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
If you've never seen a mating dance by the Greater Sage-Grouse, you're in for a treat. Well, even if you have seen it, it's still quite a sight. The males prance around, tail feathers spread far apart like a big spiky fan. They inflate their chests with air and bobble it up and down, booming the whole time.
Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
We took a seat about 75 yards away, and sat quietly while the males tried to outdo each other, hoping that a female would notice them and take them away to a more private spot. I tried to get some shots with my 400mm lens, but the birds were too far out to get any decent detail, so I tried digiscoping, but no luck since it was getting dark and the shots were coming out a bit blurry. But what I ended up with was even better. Thanks to the movie mode on my Coolpix, I was able to capture the dancing chickens in full action. I was too far from them to capture any audio, so you'll need to provide the soundtrack. Whenever you see their chest bounce up and down, just give a deep "woob woob".

After it got dark, we left Lake Crowley and drove the few miles to Tom's Place to eat. After a very satisfying meal, we drove back to Bishop to get some shuteye. It had been a long day, but it was a great success nonetheless. I looked forward to what Day Two had in store.

Continue to Day 2.

(You must have QuickTime to see the videos. If you don't have it, get it here.)





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