Snow, Sage, and Dancing Chickens, Day 2

Posted by ardeidae on July 15, 2006

After a great Day One, Sunday morning we met up at Jack's Waffle Shop again. After another satisfying breakfast, we took off at 7:30. We were on a mission to see more grouse, this time the Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). We headed down the 395 and into Lone Pine. We made a brief stop to consolidate the group into fewer cars then headed west.

Blue Grouse
It was 44 degrees with little breeze. After about 20 minutes, we made it to our first stop, Upper Sage Flat Campground. We were in a valley between two tall mountain tops. The place was covered in a few feet of snow, just crusty enough to walk on without sinking in. The mountain sides showed remnants of small avalanches, but where we were, slides were unlikely. Nevertheless, we all stayed withing close proximity of each other. We walked a short way and came to a bridge crossing a small stream. We stopped to see what we could find. Those in the front were able to catch glimpse of an American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), but I was taking up the rear and wasn't able to get an angle on it. It quickly disappeared around a bend. Just about then, we heard our target bird. We headed toward it's direction and soon spotted the lone Blue Grouse sitting half way up a tree. It was a little difficult to get good looks because of where it sat, but we were able to watch it for about half of an hour before we continued on.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
We stopped a little further up the mountain at Glacier Lodge, which was fairly active with birds. In the trees, we saw both Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flittering about, as well as a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). Near to the stream were Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), and American Robin (Turdus migratorius). A Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) flew in for a quick stop before continuing on.
Brown Creeper
Someone spotted a dipper working the stream a little ways up, so we stealthily made our way up the path that paralleled the stream. After a few minutes though, the stream curved off and our path became brush. Once again this bird eluded me. We did get a little treat, though, as a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) flew over and circled a couple times. We were able to get a decent look before it continued over the ridge. On our way back down the mountain, we spotted a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) taking advantage of the thermals to search for a meal. Hopefully it found something that didn't require a microwave.

After making a quick stop in Lone Pine to pick up our cars, we headed south down the 395 and took the 168 east up into the White Mountains. About 10 minutes up we made an abrupt stop. Someone had spotted a couple of Chukar (Alectoris chukar), a new bird for me. With the sloping rocky mountainside peppered in brush, those guys are really hard to spot. We were taking up the rear, but someone had come to point them out. It was hard to get a bearing with virtually no landmark, and I couldn't seem to find either of the two birds. And to make matters worse, they weren't moving. After a few minutes of searching, it was time to take off.

Fighting Chukar
Yet another bird skunked me! But not for long. A few minutes up the road we stopped again. There were calls of Chukar all around. And these were easier to see, not because of the terrain, but because of the movement. There were three of the birds in a close proximity. One of them must have been a female and the other two male, for two of them were really going at each other! One would grab the feathers on the other and then fly up, taking a mess of feathers with him. They'd fight for a few minutes, sliding down the hill, then pause long enough to catch a breath and climb back up, only to start at it again. We must have watched them for about 20 minutes before they both disappeard behind into the brush. There were still more calls of other Chukar, but it was hard to get any looks, so we continued on to find the day's target bird.

Prime Habitat
After winding another 10 minutes or so through the mountains, we pulled off the road into a graveled parking area. We hiked up a small berm. The top revealed an amazing sight...a loose forest valley of bristlecone pines and other trees. Prime habitat for our target bird, the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). We paused quietly waiting for any signs of a Pinyon Jay call, but all we heard was the gentle breeze of the wind through the trees. A small group broke off and scouted out the hill below. I stayed up top scanning the horizon with my scope. A few minutes later, we heard a Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi). At first it was a slight distance away, but soon came in close enough for a good look. Unfortunately, it zipped around just fast enough to elude my lens. No photos, but got good views of it anyway. About that time, we heard some Pinyon Jays noisily cawing. A few flew in to check us for a minute and then took off again. We got some really good looks. What an amazing blue bird! We hopped back down to our cars and grabbed a quick lunch.

After we were all satisfied, we turned around and started heading back down the mountain. But first, a quick stop to check out the forest on the other side of the road, where Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) had been reported. Sure enough, we caught sight of a few, as well as Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) and Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii). Well worth the stop.

We continued back out of Bristlecone Pines and down the 395, turning onto Fish Spring Road. At a small body of water, we spotted Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera). Along the fence row, we also go Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Brewer's Blackbird, and Says's Phoebe (Sayornis saya). We spotted some swallows in the distance, so we turned onto Elna Road. Thick scrub lined the east side of a gully, which separated us from a small flatland area before hitting the mountains to the west. Along with White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), swallows were all about. We tallied up Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), and Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina). That many swallows makes it a gulp!

We then continued back to the 395 and south for just a short ways, where we made our last stop at the Tinemaha Reservoir. We were way above the reservoir and got a view of it, but it was really windy and hard to identify the birds on the water with the distance and shake of the scope. We observed what we could for about thirty minutes before saying our goodbyes. Most of the group headed back to the Los Angeles area, but Carol and I had decided to spend another night in Bishop, so we headed back up north.

Monday morning, we packed up and headed out north of Bishop in search of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) we had seen on last year's trip. We drove around for a little while, but couldn't get to the exact spot we were looking for. The place we were looking for was a road lined with apartments on one side of the street, and a long scrubby area on the other. There was a bare tree at the end of the scrubby area that made a perch for about 50 Yellow-headed Blackbirds. It was quite a sight. Oh well, maybe next year.

American Wigeon
We headed back to Bishop to get some Chili Cheeze Bread at Schatt's Bakker├┐. After stocking up on bread, we made one last stop across the street, a small park next to the Chamber of Commerce. There's a long stretch of water about six feet wide. Along with Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), there were also several American Wigeon (Anas americana). They weren't too skittish, and I was able to get some nice shots. I was talking to the park groundsman about the birds stopping by on their northern migration when a parking enforcement woman came by and started writing a ticket...for our car! We hadn't noticed the sign that said "20-minute Parking" and we were well past the time. But after explaining that we were about to leave, she let us off the hook. Yet another great thing about Bishop...even the parking enforcement people are nice.

It was yet another amazing trip to the Eastern Sierras. We saw a lot of great birds and beautiful scenery. Being up in and around the mountains is quite relaxing and peaceful. I can't wait to go back agin.

Oh, and about that Swainson's Hawk in Chalifant Valley with the transmitter we saw on Day One: About a week after the trip, the leader Mary Freeman sent us an email. She had emailed one of the local raptor experts about the sighting and got this response: "During the last several years the [California Department of Fish and Game] has attached satellite transmitters to about 10 SWHAs in the Owens Valley. The purpose was to understand late summer, early spring and migrational movements. This has been done in the Central Valley of CA also. The findings are that the Owens Valley SWHAs migrate to Argentina with most of the North American SWHAs, but the majority of the Central Valley SWHAs migrate to Mexico for the winter. There are currently two active transmitters still on SWHAs in the Owens Valley. You must have seen one of them."





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