Saturday, October 3, 2009

Early October Bird Banding

It was clear and hot this morning in Zuma Canyon. We caught some uncommon birds and then we caught a new species, which had never been netted at the station before. This was along with the normal slew of Bewick's Wrens, Wrentits and Bushtits.

First the uncommon ones. A Western Wood-Pewee. It snapped its bill at me as I got it out of the net, a common characteristic of all the flycatchers I have banded.
A Purple Finch, which bit me as I untangled it. Nice bird.
An Ash-Throated Flycatcher. Again, she was a bill-snapper. I managed to avoid getting any skin caught, though.

Cassin's Kingbird - a new species for the banding station.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Black-backed Woodpecker Surveys 2009. Part 07

So, we slept peacefully at Cold Springs Campground in Mineral King, Sequoia National Park. Next morning we got up when we wanted and proceeded at a leisurely pace to get ourselves together for our hike to the Cooney Fire. This was my only backcountry fire of the season. I tried to pack light and so did Bob, but there is only so much you can do when you have all the work gear (clipboard, Cruiser’s Crutch, Fox Pro digital caller, GPS unit, compass, binoculars, lots of paperwork) and have to carry a bear canister. It isn’t light backpacking. Bob opted to leave his car near the ranger station, where there was potentially less of a marmot risk. He dropped me off at the trailhead with the packs and I waited for his return.

What the marmots make people do. The rodents chew on car parts.
This is the view of where we are going from the trailhead. We are climbing over the top of that snowy saddle - Farewell Gap - in the distance. It's almost dead center in the frame.
We hauled ourselves upward for 6 miles, over Farewell Gap and into the Golden Trout Wilderness.

Almost to the Gap ...
Looking back northeast towards the Great Western Divide
Finally there. That's a signpost on the left.

The other side looking roughly southeast - Golden Trout Wilderness.
We decided to camp at Bullion Flat in a copse of Foxtail Pines, two miles short of the Cooney Fire. We did this for two reasons: 1) I recalled from last year’s trip that it’s steep around the fire and there aren’t any good spots to camp 2) Bob and I were tired of humping the packs. We preferred to get up much earlier and hike the rest of the way with only our daypacks. I told Bob I would do the farther reaches of the Cooney Fire so it was going to be a lot of hiking for me.

As we whiled away the afternoon at about 9200 ft., I ended up wearing all the clothes I had because it was so windy. Bob asked if I heard a helicopter and I said yes. A bit later, I looked up from my book and realized that there was a plume of smoke in the distance, right near where Cooney was. Now we had an explanation for the helicopter; most likely, it was dumping water or flame retardant. To our dismay, it looked like the new fire might affect our survey plans. We decided the only thing we could do was get up at 4:15 a.m. as planned, hike closer and assess the situation then.

Smoke from a new fire. I knew Cooney was back in that valley, too.
There were a lot of marmots around, so we had to hook our backpacks up on trees. Marmots gnaw on sweat-soaked straps to get the delicious salt. I realized that I would have to break down my tent before we left in the morning, or I would risk a marmot gnawing it. (Last year at the Cold Springs Campground I had surprised a deer industriously licking the very same tent, so didn’t want to take any chances.). Bob had left his tent behind because he didn’t want to carry it. Sans tent, he said there were rodents running over him all night. When he said that I remembered that at sunset, I had seen a mysterious creature climbing up the side of my tent. I can’t remember what it looked like now, but it seemed to be the size of a mouse. Glad I had my tent, even though it meant I had to get up even earlier.

At 4:30 a.m. I found myself faced with the beginning of a tiring day. To start, there was a stream crossing; we had camped across it and now it was time to go back over it to get to the trail. I was frazzled from a sleepless night and almost lost it at the stream (incidentally, a source of the Kern River). I didn’t like Bob’s choice of crossing point so wandered to find my own and discovered I was completely incapable of assessing the situation and making a decision. So, I went back to Bob’s crossing and did the requisite contortions to make it across. I almost fell in, though.

In the first light of morning we could see the smoke had settled into a flat ceiling over our destination.
After we had hiked about 35 minutes, we saw flames. Bright orange-red, glowing flames. Based on the maps we had and my knowledge from last year’s survey, we placed the new fire at the southern edge of the Cooney Fire. Neither of us were comfortable with this (most especially me – my part of the survey was at that edge), so we headed back to pack up camp and leave. Defeated by Mother Nature! We had lugged all our stuff in for no reason.

On the way back up ... I was cold and couldn't wait to hit the sun.
All the uphill was in the first hour, after that it was a slow, steady downhill. We were out by 9.30 a.m. and got back to Bob’s in Lotus by 4:00 p.m. This is when Bob told me that we had driven 1300 miles. And we still had four more days to go!

When we talked to Rodney he had found out from the Forest Service that the fire had been started by a lightning strike and was where Shotgun Creek hits the Little Kern – exactly where we thought. Apparently it was a very small fire (which made me feel wimpy) called Shotgun. But, fire is one thing that terrifies me (what a terrible way to go!), so I had no regrets about walking away.

Angora & Gondola
Next, we were off to Lake Tahoe to survey two fires, Angora and Gondola. The weather was opposite of the last time we were there. It was sunny and 85 degrees – unusually hot. We stayed with Abbie again. She very kindly let us stay with her and Dylan, her dog. Dylan is the most adorable dog I have ever met. I entertained thoughts of dognapping. He is so devoted to Abbie, though, he would probably never get over it.
Abbie works for the Forest Service in the Tahoe Basin, so was helpful at telling us the easiest access to our fires. Angora was the first. It’s a recent fire, was huge and actually burned down some houses. It was crawling with Black-backed Woodpeckers. Never have I surveyed a fire in which you pretty much detected woodpeckers all morning - at points, in between points, and again walking back from the survey. I had a rough morning – mentally foggy, problems with equipment (which almost killed the whole morning’s survey) – so it was great to get so many detections. I was also rewarded with a pair of Great Horned Owls. It got very hot, too, which added to the stress of the morning. Sweat was pouring down my back.

Beautiful wildflowers bloom for years after fires.
The next day we did Gondola. I had only one woodpecker at Gondola, but Bob had some at all points but one. I think my digital caller was acting up; it didn’t seem to be loud enough, even though I had put fresh batteries in it the day before. The fire was on a ski slope high above Lake Tahoe.

Sunrise looking east over the Carson Valley (towards Nevada).
The fire was a pain to get to and survey (straight uphill, super-steep terrain covered with brush and downed logs) but had gorgeous views. Those steep slopes gave me one blister of a big toe.

Precipitous. I had to remind myself not to slip.

Lake Tahoe from Gondola Fire

We returned to Lotus to a searing 100 degrees and decided to stay at Bob’s and wait out the heat. We arrived just before sunset to our last fire, the Fall Fire. It was another, like Freds, that turned out to be full of private property holdings. In fact, most of it was private property, and it had signs of active logging. Once we figured out the small area we could survey we pulled off the road, ate dinner, drank a beer, set up camp and crashed. This was the best night’s sleep I have ever gotten in the woods. Perhaps because it was my last night and I knew I would be going home to Mark? Perhaps because I went to bed later (9:45 p.m.) than usual? The survey the next morning was uninspiring. I could hear the logging going on and the noise was coming from where Bob was. He said it was hard to hear during his survey. Fall was a sour note to end on (no birds, the forest was clear cut in areas), but I mostly forget about it and remember the last days at Tahoe, where I had woodpeckers galore.

Flying home and seeing the Carrizo Plain/Soda Lake. The San Andreas Fault is down there, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Black-backed Woodpecker Surveys 2009. Part 06

Back to looking for woodpeckers. Bob arrived early at the Fresno airport Monday morning June 22nd, and so did I, a shared trait that makes our work together agreeable.

This is what all my stuff looked like while waiting in the Hertz parking lot.
He warned me that the day – actually the week – would involve a lot of driving. Well, I had already driven over a thousand miles, so what were more?

We drove through the flat farmland of the Central Valley to Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. We were going to Cedar Grove to pick up Alan, a Park Flight intern from Mexico, who was going to observe Bob do the Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS). I was also along to help Bob with this. There were parts of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) I had never been to in the summer and I relished the chance to spend time there. Once we got to Cedar Grove it took two hours to find Alan. When we found him we had to rush off to get the BBS paperwork, then figure out the route by driving it. To do this, we drove almost the whole way up to Mineral King and then back out to check the stopping points. The road to Mineral King is a twisting, sometimes disintegrating piece of asphalt that that climbs 3000 feet; you travel from dry scrub up through Sierra Mixed Conifer and Sequoia habitat. It’s 25 miles in 1 ½ hours. Once we drove the BBS route, we went almost the whole way back up the 25 miles to camp at Atwell Mills. It was dark by then. Alan slept on top of a sequoia stump. No sleeping bag, no tent. I was impressed. I slept at the base of one. I had forgotten how majestic sequoias are. You definitely feel you are in the presence of something great.

Giant Sequoia

The well-traveled route for Monday-Tuesday. A is the Fresno Airport, B is Cedar Grove. C is Mineral King (Atwell Mills is about 5 miles short of Mineral King). We went back and forth between B & C.

View Larger Map

Breeding Bird Survey
Tuesday morning we were up at 5 a.m. to start the BBS route. We were out of the car every half mile. I would take a GPS reading and notes on relevant geographical features that would help next year’s surveyor identify the point. For five minutes, Bob documented all the birds he heard or saw. Alan was there to see how it was all done, and to get practice identifying birds by ear. We did 50 points - 25 miles - which took us to 10:15 a.m. Highlights were hearing a Spotted Owl and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Then we had some lunch and returned to Cedar Grove, a 3 ½ hour drive. On the way, we scouted out the next day’s BBS route. That night we stayed in Alan’s National Park housing, with a roof over our heads. We all slept in the same room, with Bob and I on the floor. Alan chivalrously offered up his bed to me, but I declined. I didn’t want to put the man out of his own bed.

Next day we repeated the BBS routine. Though, we had to get up at 4 a.m. (instead of the 5 a.m. of the previous day) because we could not sleep close to our start point. The road we traveled steeply declined into Kings Canyon towards Cedar Grove (our stopping point).

Bob looking over Kings Canyon into the wilderness.

Often there was no shoulder - the road plunged down into the canyon on one side, and there was a rock wall on the other.

Hello, rock wall.
We had carefully noted where all the turnouts were when we scouted it the previous day. So, we shot for every half mile unless there was really no place to pull the truck over. I think this only happened twice; there were that many turnouts along the 25-mile route. Once we got close to the Kings River we often couldn’t hear any birds; the river was that loud.

Kings River

After a chilly morning, the sun finally almost getting to us.

Dead bat along the route.

Once we finished, Bob and I had to get back to Mineral King to camp because we were to leave the following morning on a backcountry trip to a fire. We left Cedar Grove at 10:30 a.m. and got to the Cold Springs Campground in Mineral King at 3:30. We stopped for lunch and at a grocery store, but the rest was all driving. I took a small nature hike and a bath in the Kaweah.

Sawtooth Peak when nature hiking.
We ended up with a sweet campsite, that had Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Wilson’s Warblers and Fox Sparrows singing in it.

View from campsite.
Bob slept on top of this rock on the right.

Black-backed Woodpecker Surveys 2009. Part 05

I left you at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pinnacles National Monument

My plan for the day was to continue south to Pinnacles National Monument. I got there around 1:00 p.m. and it, too, was crowded because of Father’s Day weekend. I wanted to get away from the hoi polloi, so picked a hike I thought might be less populated. It was incredibly hot (the opposite of Point Reyes’ windy cool), so I planned a short one. There were plenty of people at the start, but they thinned out as I kept going and going and going. I had meant to keep it short, but I was enthralled. Pinnacles was an amazing place. The reddish rocks were beautiful and jutted out in incredible volcanic formations.

The Pinnacles.

This volcanic breccia matches rocks from near Lancaster, CA, 195 miles to the south, and geologists were stumped until the theory of plate tectonics was developed. Pinnacles is sliding north on the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault. My one-hour hike turned into four, but was worth it. I saw some beautiful landscapes, as well as a Prairie Falcon. And, the last few hours I barely saw anyone. Probably because it was infernally hot and no one was stupid enough to be out! I managed to stay comfortable by drinking a lot of water; it was easy to refill at the rangers stations and I had an extra bottle for safety. Another great thing about Pinnacles was its manageable size; it was a place a human could wrap her head around. I bet you could hike the entire park in a day. Also, there were “caves” to hike through, which were refreshingly cool.

Entrance to Balconies Cave.

People in front of me at Balconies Cave.

They aren't really caves. They are enclosures made by talus.

View up a canyon.

Can you say Poison Oak? It was everywhere.
The steep section of my climb. I was glad for the steps and rails.

Sometimes it was a narrow squeeze.
When I left at 6 p.m. my mission was to find a place to stay for the night. I wanted to get to a motel near the Fresno airport, where I had to meet Bob at 8 a.m. Monday. I had budgeted for a room because I wanted to have a decent night of rest before I went out in the field again.

Heading East
I took a quiet county road towards Fresno. There was a place called Mercey Hot Springs on my map, and, if I wasn’t too tired, I was going to stop and see what it was like. I was getting tired, though, so doubted I’d stay. I made the left turn to the springs; it was in the middle of a desolate nowhere, and I almost missed it. The guy at registration barely looked me in the eye as I peppered him with questions. This was kind of creepy. He spoke with an Eastern European accent. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of people around either, all of which led me to play out every horror movie scenario I had ever seen. There was some noise from a house on the property – obviously where the family who owned the place lived. The clerk showed me around as the day sweltered to an end; I wanted to have a look before I committed myself to my fate. It was quaintly shabby, yet all the bathing areas looked spotless. I could get a cute, stand-alone cabin (bed!) for a price I was willing to pay. And, there was a pool and individual tubs and a sauna. My aching body was up for that. Plus, it was getting late and sunset was coming. I was tired, and the dark county road drive and airport hotel waiting at the end of it became increasingly unappealing. Perhaps the house was full of a slew of blood-sucking Transylvanian relatives that would soon be out (the sun was setting!), but I tamped down my overactive imagination and handed over my credit card.

It was all great, though. I repacked. I had sprawled all over the car, so this took a while. I ate. The sun set, the heat dissipated and it became gentle and still, the encroaching dark enticing many animals to stir. I filled up one of the tubs – I had the whole area to myself –and laid back to enjoy the dusk and the brightening stars. A Great Horned Owl flew over and I saw lots of hopping rabbits. (Their death by owl talons perhaps the only blood-letting that happened that evening.) At first the water seemed too cool, but then I realized it was the perfect temperature; I did not feel hot or cold, but was in a lovely equilibrium, floating in a haze of liquid warmth.

Registration and warnings.

The cabin.

The tubs.

Mineral water makes my wedding band turn gold. It's almost like the real thing.

The next morning I drove the 1 ½ hours to Fresno to meet Bob. He was early, so was I. Ten more days to go!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black-backed Woodpecker Surveys 2009. Part 04

I wake up Saturday north of San Francisco and I have two days to myself, two days to wander before I had to meet Bob in Fresno for the next (and last) leg of my field work. I had decided that I was going to wing this whole portion of my journey. No reservations, no solid plans. I wanted to throw myself out there and see what happened. If you know me well, you realize this is completely out of character. I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and I have to say I did accomplish that.

Point Reyes National Seashore
I felt incredibly independent with my own wheels to point in any direction I wanted. Northwest it was. I drove my red rental car out to the Point Reyes National Seashore, which I had wanted to see since my move to California eleven years ago. I checked at the Visitor’s Center and there was only one campsite left for $20, which involved a five-mile hike in. I was not in the mood for that, so declined. (This turned out to be a wise, yet fateful decision because the wind was going at 45 m.p.h.+ at the ocean, where all the campsites seemed to be). The ranger told me she had just sold the last easy hike in campsite; I had missed by fifteen minutes. Housing I would have to worry about later. I went to Abbott’s Lagoon and hiked out to the shore based on Rodney’s birding recommendations.

I saw this Red-shouldered Hawk on the drive to Abbott's.
California Quail at Abbott's Lagoon.

Red-winged Blackbird.
Lupine at Abbott's Lagoon.
I hiked out past the lagoon and to the shore.
Here I came in contact with the wind, and some kitesurfers who were using it to their advantage.
I then went to the lighthouse, which was closed because of the high winds.

This is how windy it was. My breath was being snatched out of me!

You could see the lighthouse, but could not descend the stairs on account of the wind.
I was amazed at all the cattle/dairy farms on the peninsula. I lost count, but there were easily ten. These all got grandfathered in when the park was created. When I went to an elephant seal viewing area, the wind was strongly blowing offshore and all I could smell was cattle manure.

On my way back towards the entrance to the peninsula, I made a turn to the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm and had a half dozen delicious oysters. I didn’t realize I could shuck them myself, so needlessly spend $9 cash (when I could have spent $5.40).
This proved to be not the smartest thing I have ever done. I then stopped at a few motels to see if I could find a deal, but they were all much more than I wanted to spend. My plan had always been to camp Saturday night anyway; I wanted to save the luxury of a room for Sunday night, my last night before going back in the field. I finally returned to a campground in Olema, which I had driven by earlier in the morning. The price was $39 (!) for a campsite, which she told me I could go look at and then come back and let her know if I wanted it. This is when I looked at the sign behind her (CASH ONLY), opened my wallet and realized I not only had merely $31, but I had not brought my debit card. I considered using a charge card for a cash advance, but I had a new card and I had no idea what the PIN was (I’m sure a blessing in disguise. Interest on that would have been ridiculous). I opted to throw myself on the cashier’s mercy. She very kindly gave me what she thought was a crappy site and charged me $25. I had been prepared to give her my whole $31. Her kindness left me with $6, which turned out to be one of the most fortuitous things that happened to me all weekend. In addition, the crappy campsite was much quieter and away from the madness that was Father’s Day Weekend. I had a shower/bathroom near me which no one else seemed to use. I didn’t have a stove, so I had onion potato chips and beer for dinner.

My site on the 100 Meadow.
The relatively empty 100 Meadow.
The madness of Father's Day.

Driving South
Sunday I woke up early, broke camp and left before almost anyone stirred. The last two sites next to me had been taken; the people must have arrived after dark and set up. I drove down to Bolinas and had a coffee while avoiding crazy homeless and drunk people. Then I went out to Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which I had heard about for years in birding circles. They have been banding on the peninsula for a long time. I hung out with the two banders for a bit. They netted a Pacific-slope Flycatcher and a Swainson’s Thrush. Then I was on my way.

I headed south to San Francisco on the 101 and crossed my fingers. I hoped I would have enough money to take the Golden Gate Bridge. (I’m not sure when this dawned on me, that I would have to pay to cross a bridge. Once it did I was … concerned.) I had no idea how much it was and I didn’t really have a sound back-up plan if I didn’t have enough. I was hoping the cashier might be able to take a charge card or at least tell me if there was a way to get over the bay without paying a bridge toll or the ol’ throw-myself-on-her-mercy thing again. The adrenalin was building as I drove over the bay, and as I approached the booth I saw the toll …. $6. Wow. I had exact change.