November 12, 2012

Wintering Raptor Season Begins!

The wintering raptor season has officially started!  We (Boulder County Audubon Teen Naturalists) surveyed a route north of Boulder yesterday, and had an excellent morning.  We found a total 32 raptors consisting of 6 different species, plus an additional four that were seen outside of the count protocol.  A Rough-legged Hawk was notably special, as that species has become particularly uncommon in Boulder County in recent years.  Other unusual finds were a flock of 11 pure-white domesticated doves (apparently a dwarf-sized variety of Rock Pigeon) and a very late Greater Yellowlegs at Lagerman Reservoir.

Bald Eagle - 2 (1 immature and 1 adult)
Northern Harrier - 2 adult males
Ferruginous Hawk - 2 (plus 1 extra)
Red-tailed Hawk - 18 (plus 2 extras)
"Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk - 1
Rough-legged Hawk (dark-morph) - 1
unidentified buteo - 1
American Kestrel - 2 (plus 1 extra)

Immature Bald Eagle - by Marcel Such

Ferruginous Hawk - by Joel Such

Male American Kestrel - by Joel Such

Rough-legged Hawk - by Marcel Such

by Marcel Such

by Marcel Such

by Joel Such

August 8, 2012

Northern Pygmy-Owls in the Hood

On August 4th, we got a call from our neighbors, Pete and Val, about the little owl being back.  She’d seen it previously, searched the Internet, and decided it was a Northern Pygmy-Owl.  We immediately headed over to indeed find a Northern Pygmy-Owl in the top of a cottonwood tree in broad daylight. Meanwhile, we heard high-pitched trills emanating down the ponderosa covered hillside, so we worked our way up a bit to investigate.  The Chipping Sparrow-like trills were coming from young Northern Pygmy-Owls.  Completely unconcerned about us, the owls were curiously bobbing their heads back and forth, and trilling every minute or so.  One sported a Pygmy Nuthatch in its talons while another had a lizard.  At least four of these small mountain owls hung around in close proximity to our neighbors’ back door treating us to a spectacular show.

Note the lizard in this photo.

All the above photos by Joel Such

Press on the arrow to hear one of the fledglings vocalize.

Yesterday, while we were out, Val called again.  She reported that they’d seen one of the owls using their birdbath.

Photos by Val Peterson

Thanks to the Petersons for giving us updates and allowing us to observe these birds!

If you haven't previously seen it, you may want to check out our December 2009 post featuring a Northern Pygmy-Owl taking out a Harris's Sparrow!

August 7, 2012

California Wanderings, Part 11: Final Day

Leaving Visalia on June 27, we prepared for our biggest travel day yet, eight hours to Las Vegas, with only a negligible amount of stopping as we re-traversed the Mojave Desert.

On Jawbone Canyon Road, we stopped to try our luck for Le Conte’s Thrasher in an off-road vehicle area strewn with giant pipes funneling water to Los Angeles.  Joel and I hiked cross country for nearly an hour without luck.  Suddenly, Joel spotted one.  We followed it, then there was another, and we followed both until we had some documentary photographs (they were so finicky, we couldn’t hope for much more).  Back on the road, we had another flush from the sparse roadside foliage.  So much for the hour-long hike…

Le Conte's Thrasher - by Joel Such

Birding Jawbone Canyon - by Renée Haip

By Renée Haip

By Joel Such

Though the mid-day heat was rapidly approaching, we managed a brief stop at the famous Butterbredt Spring Wildlife Area.  An isolated oasis in the middle of the desert, this series of riparian pockets becomes an irresistible stop-over location for migrants flying across the Mojave.  Many off-route eastern migrants can sometimes be found here, and in other similar locations. Though it was the middle of summer, and the car thermometer was already reading close to 90°F (at 9:00 in the morning), we also found the draw irresistible.  During our short visit, we had our first Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Costa’s Hummingbirds.  Additionally, a roosting Great Horned Owl was our only owl of the entire trip (besides the heard-only Great Gray in Yosemite), despite hours of night-time birding.

Note the sliver of green on the hillside.
This is Butterbredt Springs.
By Renée Haip

Butterbredt Springs - by Renée Haip

Western Wood-Pewee - by Joel Such

At 3 that afternoon, we found ourselves in Death Valley.  With the car reading an outside temperature of 120°, we didn’t see any birds at all, except for a handful of Eurasian Collared-Doves and Common Ravens on the Furnace Creek Golf Course.  Obviously, birds were not our main reason to be here.    Besides being a very scenic, world-famous National Park, we were acclimating for our return home to a baking and burning Colorado.  We figured that 110° heat would not feel so bad after 120°.  It turns out that Colorado started cooling off, clouding up, and raining almost as soon as we got home.  Even so, 120° was a new personal high temperature record for us by about 9 degrees, and was definitely worth the experience.

Desert rock creatures somewhere
to the west of Death Valley National Park.
By Joel Such

August 4, 2012

California Wanderings, Part 10: Kings Canyon and Sequoia

A quick national park hop to the south on June 25, we entered the combined Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  Besides being home to the largest trees on the planet, the Giant Sequoia, these parks also host an incredibly diverse array of habitats, from the foothills at 1,300’ to the high sierra at 14,494’ (the highest elevation in the lower 48).

Controlled Burn

Because we got to the park in the late afternoon and there were pending road closures, we practically drove straight down the Generals Highway to the small city of Three Rivers with only a few stops between.  We were loath to miss exploring Kings Canyon, which is spectacularly wild and mostly road-less, but a return trip someday with backpacks is on the wish list.  The following morning as we were packing up to head back into the park, we suddenly noticed half a dozen Black Swifts hunting above the parking lot!  They won silver as the most random bird of the trip (behind our Kelso Blackburnian Warbler).

Black Swift - by Joel Such

Anna's Hummingbird - by Joel Such

Western Bluebird - by Joel Such

Western Scrub-Jay - by Joel Such

Great Horned Owl Feather - by Joel Such

From the Buckeye Flat Campground, a hike up the beautiful, tumultuous, and crystal clear Paradise Creek was one of our favorite hikes of the trip and had some very nice birds.  Our first Black-throated Gray Warblers sung from the scrub-oak, a lone female Common Merganser rode the rapids, and an American Dipper chattered on its way downstream.

by Joel Such

by Renée Haip

by Renée Haip

California Whiptail (Cnemidophorus tigris mundus) - by Joel Such

by Renée Haip

Common Merganser - by Marcel Such

Upon a ranger’s suggestion for Mountain Quail and Sooty Grouse, an hour-long drive up a winding dirt road to the Mineral King site and Silver City commenced.  Upon arrival at the rustic Silver City Resort, Joel was immediately out and about scouring the surrounding area while I took a catnap hoping to revive my sleep-deprived mind.  So it should come as no surprise when Joel rushed back to the car to fetch me after he had heard a Mountain Quail up the hillside.  Despite much searching, the quail failed to re-proclaim themselves.

Hiking up the Eagle Lakes trailhead at the end of the road was our last chance of the trip for Sooty Grouse, and we were not disappointed (as I was with my now nemesis Mountain Quail).  A mere half-mile up the extremely steep trail, we heard a male booming down the slope.  We descended quietly, and stumbled across a female and two chicks, which distracted us enough to lose track of the male.  Booming continued on up the trail, with additional females with families, until our Sooty Grouse total reached an incredible nineteen (our conservative estimate, as the booming males are extremely hard to count due to the considerable distance their calls travel).  Other notable birds include Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds, American Dipper, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Willow and Dusky Flycatcher, Red Crossbill, and Hermit Thrush.

Mineral King area of Giant Sequoia National Park

Wilson's Warbler - by Joel Such

White sp.

Black-tailed Deer - by Joel Such

Male Sooty Grouse - by Joel Such

Female Sooty Grouse - by Joel Such

Female Sooty Grouse - by Joel Such

Female Sooty Grouse - by Joel Such

Sooty Grouse Chick - by Joel Such

Sooty Grouse Chick - by Joel Such

Marmot - by Joel Such
These guys love to nibble on car tires, so it was interesting to see the backpackers' vehicles and their attempts to safeguard their tires.  The chicken wire fortress was the most impressive.

Following another car-sickening ride back down the valley, we emerged from the mountains at the end of our last full day of the trip.  The next blog post will cover our final day, and the birds and experiences that made it memorable.

August 3, 2012

California Wanderings - Part 9: Yosemite

The glacially carved landscape of Yosemite National Park is a place of extreme beauty.  Bold granite domes, lush meadows, tall waterfalls, and giant sequoias grace this designated World Heritage Site.  Drawing crowds from all over the world, over 3.7 million people visit the park each year and most of those folks crowd into the 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley threatening to love the place to death.  95% of the park is designated as wilderness and with elevations ranging from 2,127 to 13,114 feet and containing five major vegetation zones, there is plenty to explore.

On the evening of June 23, we took our first foray into Yosemite.  Still needing to get in our run for the day, we ran on the trails around Tuolumne Meadows while our parents hiked around Lembert Dome and Soda Springs.  Being a couple thousand feet higher than any other place on the trip yet (8600’), we saw a good number of new species including Spotted Sandpiper, Mountain Bluebird, Pine Grosbeak, and Cassin’s Finch.  As the light began to fade, we slowly made our way back down to Lee Vining near Mono Lake, stopping here and there hoping to hear some owls, but only had a distant calling Common Poorwill!

Lembert Dome from Tuolumne Meadows - by Renée Haip

Anticipating the Sunday crowd in Yosemite Valley, we departed at 4:45 AM and worked our way over Tioga Pass to the west side of the park.  Our plan was definitely a good one, as we saw very few vehicles on the road and had every scenic pull off to ourselves.  By the time we actually entered Yosemite Valley, the traffic was starting to pick up and by 9 am the place was swarming with tourists.  We had smartly nabbed a parking spot and walked or took the free shuttle to our destinations of choice.

First glimpse of Half Dome (Olmstead Point).
By Renée Haip

Another View of Half Dome.
By Renée Haip

Another view of Half Dome, depicting the reality of Yosemite Valley!
By Renée Haip

For our time in the valley, we went on a few short hikes.  First, we worked our way from the parking area to the base of Yosemite Falls.  Plummeting off a 2,325-foot cliff, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America.  Vaux’s and White-throated Swifts swirled around above the old growth oak and pine forests where we saw birds such as Acorn, Hairy, and White-headed Woodpeckers, Cassin’s Vireos, Hermit Thrushes, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Canyon Wrens, Nashville and Hermit Warblers, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks.  In a small rocky brook downstream from the Lower Yosemite Fall, we saw our first American Dipper of the trip.

Hiking through the meadows of Yosemite Valley - by Renée Haip

Yosemite Falls - by Renée Haip

Cassin's Vireo - by Joel Such

California Ground-Squirrel - by Marcel Such

Western Tanager - by Joel Such
Vaux's Swift - by Joel Such

Next, we took the shuttle to the trailhead for Mirror Lake.  During this time of year, the lake vanishes, but Tenaya Creek is flowing.  This nice little hike provided Mallards, a Western Wood-Pewee, a Cassin's Vireo, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, a Black-headed Grosbeak, and a Bullock's Oriole.  A small marshy area held dragonflies such as Four-spotted Skimmers, Twelve-spotted Skimmers, and Common Whitetails.

Hike to Mirror Lake - by David Such

Four-spotted Skimmer - by Joel Such

Yellow Warbler - by Joel Such

Tailed Copper - by Joel Such

By mid-afternoon, we joined the masses and headed out toward Glacier Point to enjoy the views, which did not disappoint.  In the evening, we hiked to McGurk Meadow hoping to at least hear, if not actually see a Great Gray Owl.  Hiking three-quarters of a mile through upper montane forest, we arrived at a lush meadow overrun with blood-sucking mosquitoes.  In the fading light, we started to hear the drumming of at least three Black-backed Woodpeckers.  Eventually we found one of the elusive Black-backed Woodpeckers in the top of a tall dead snag!  A Calliope Hummingbird, calling Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Dark-eyed Junco on a nest, and singing Lincoln’s Sparrows were also present along with a Long-tailed Weasel scurrying across the trail.  Waiting patiently for any hint of a Great Gray Owl, we heard the screech of a young bird!  Following the sound, we heard it a few more times along with a band of scolding Steller’s Jays and Mountain Chickadees.  We sat on the edge of the meadow hoping to get a bit luckier, but sadly we never saw the owl.  However, in the dim light, we enjoyed a spectacular aerial show of leaping brook trout snatching mosquitoes over the small pools of water in the meadow.

The iconic Tunnel View overlook - by David Such

Half Dome from Glacier View - by David Such

Common Raven - by Joel Such

McGurk Meadow - by David Such

Black-backed Woodpecker - by Joel Such

Oregon Junco Nest - by Joel Such

Brook Trout - by Joel Such

On our way to lodging in Oakhurst, we stopped at the Mariposa Grove and studied the Giant Sequoias in the moonlight!  The next morning, after sleeping in for a change, we headed back into Yosemite to see the fabled Mariposa Grove in the daylight.  Arriving at 10 am, the parking lot was packed and we had to drive farther down the road to Wawona to catch a shuttle bus with every seat and every inch of the aisle crammed tightly with passengers.   On our way to the oldest tree in the grove, the “Grizzly Giant,” a fifteen-inch sugar pine cone (aka widow maker) plummeted from the sky missing us by a couple feet.  I jumped back in response and took a big fall landing atop a sharp-edged rock and spent the rest of my time limping back to the parking lot.  Marcel continued on through a less traveled section of the grove and added a lot more species to the Mariposa Grove list including Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hairy and White-headed Woodpecker, a Townsend’s Solitaire feeding a fledgling, and Pacific Wren.

Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove - by Renée Haip

Silver-spotted Skipper - by Marcel Such

Up next: Kings Canyon and Giant Sequoia National Parks