Friday, July 12, 2013

Devil's Postpile National Monument and Yosemite Birding

On 7/9, after work, my three day break started. I made a list of target birds I wanted to see/photograph this break in the Sierras. My time out west is running out and it was time to start cleaning up some of the gaps in my list.

On my way to the Sierras, I stopped near Mono Lake to look for Sage Sparrows. It wasn't long before I found them. They were quite active and had fledged young. Based on my location (and lowland saltbrush/sagebrush habitat) and comparing with the subspecies map in National Geographic, it seems this is likely the canescens subspecies. This is an important note as the "Bell's" Sage Sparrow will probably soon be split (any day now...) as a distinct species from the interior nevadensis. It will be interesting to see where "canescens" ends up.

Sage Sparrow canescens subspecies?
On 7/10, my first stop was Devil's Postpile National Monument. I chose the Rainbow Falls trail since it seemed like a nice hike and who can resist seeing a 101 foot waterfall? I was secretly hoping to find Black Swift by the waterfall.

Not far from the trailhead I came across my first new bird for the year; Pygmy Nuthatch. There were family groups all over the trail with somewhat recently fledged young. They look similar to Brown-headed Nuthatch, but their cap is more gray and there is no range overlap.

Pygmy Nuthatch
As I continued on, I kept an eye out for Williamson's Sapsuckers, but came up empty. I would have to search another location. Once I got to the waterfall, there were no swifts, which wasn't a surprise. There was, however, an American Dipper gathering food at waters edge and then flying up and disappearing behind the waterfall.

American Dipper
I had hoped things would be a little more birdy, but it was a nice hike and it was still early. A park host suggested I check out Sotcher Lake where "they used to go to look for woodpeckers". I was a little skeptical, but I had nothing better to do, so to Sotcher Lake I went. Wouldn't you know it, a few minutes into the walk I saw a male Williamson's Sapsucker high in a pine, mostly obscured. I snapped a few poor pictures before it disappeared. I then came across a female that was a little more cooperative.

Female Williamson's Sapsucker
Checking eBird, I found a place with a few recent reports of Black-backed Woodpeckers from the Owens River Road area. It was on my way north toward Yosemite, so I decided to poke around. I was pleased to see this location is where a burn had recently taken place. I've always had good luck with Black-backed Woodpeckers in burns. It didn't take long to hear some tapping, blowing the cover of this striking woodpecker.

Black-backed Woodpecker
I then hiked from just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite to a ghost town called Bennettville. I had hoped to run into a White-tailed Ptarmigan, but had no luck. I did see more Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, though.

On 7/11, I got up very early and made my way to the Yosemite Valley. I had a few destinations I wanted to check for Black Swift and Vaux's Swift. I got a little lost and ended up right near the western entrance to the valley. I saw a swift over the meadow, so parked and got out. Then, the floodgates broke loose and there were swifts everywhere. Dozens of Black Swifts and White-throated Swifts swirled through the air. It took a minute to find a Vaux's Swift, but during my time at the meadow, I had nice looks at a few (a long overdue lifer!). This was one of my favorite birding experiences this year.

Black Swift

Vaux's Swift
I had two more birds I wanted to find before leaving the park; Cassin's Vireo and Pacific Wren. I decided to hike the trail that leads up to Half Dome. It looked great for Pacific Wren. The trail was quite steep and the whole area looked great for both targets, but it was relatively birdless. Finally, upstream from one of the waterfalls, a Pacific Wren was putting on a show! It was singing  from a low perch and didn't mind the mass of people walking by.

Pacific Wren
These birds are similar to the eastern Winter Wren, but there is no range overlap. Pacific Wren is darker (more brown/ruddy in the throat) and with less barring on the flanks.

As I was watching the Pacific Wren, a Cassin's Vireo started calling in the background. They spent most of their time in the high canopy, but eventually worked their way close enough for a photo. Notice the yellow flanks and greenish/yellow on the secondaries.

Cassin's Vireo
I should also mention that, during work last week, I finally got photos/voice recordings of a Dusky Flycatcher. The recordings aren't great (none of them are, but that is what you get doing it from an iPhone), but they work.

Dusky Flycatcher

To me, the "sibip" call of the Dusky Flycatcher sounds lower pitched than Hammond's.

This was another incredibly successful break for me. It seems my original goal of 500 was set a little low.This "big year" has resulted in pledges worth over $3000 that will be donated to the American Bird Conservancy for Hawaiian bird conservation. Still plenty of time to pledge. Every little bit helps!

I only have two more breaks. On 7/19, after work, I'll once again head to the CA coast. On 7/21, there is a pelagic trip out of Half Moon bay that I have signed up for. If all goes well, this will be my last big slug of new birds before heading back east.

Before the weekend, I hope to finally get a photo of a Mountain Quail. The young are growing up fast and should be more obvious than they were earlier in the year. Fingers crossed.

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