Cut to the lovely Lee Vining Creek campground a week later. Rodney, the Executive Director of IBP, and I finally had a pleasant, sunny evening. I had flown to Oakland two days before and we embarked on a long drive to the Eastern Sierra Nevada. I realized after we got to our destination – French Camp in the Inyo National Forest - that I probably could have driven there in less time than it took me to fly + drive. Oh, well. We needed to only have one car, and, as things turned out, leaving one on the Eastside would not have worked out. Field work involves a lot of changing your plans based on what you find on the ground. And, we had lots of changed plans.
My tent at French Camp.
First off was the Birch Fire.
The fire habitat was all burned Pinyon Pine. Normally we have Jeffrey or Ponderosa or Sugar or Lodgepole Pine. Also Incense-Cedar and White or Red Fir. Pinyons are small, scrappy trees that grow in the arid Eastside climate. All the trees you see here are Pinyon in the Birch Fire.Different bird species prefer the arid Eastside’s sagebrush/desert, so lots of new birds came into play. Confusing at first until I sorted it all out.
There are also great flowers, like this Desert Evening-Primrose. My field guide says each white flower blooms only one night and then withers in the light of the next day (the pink things). It says they smell amazing. I forgot to smell. I didn't realize what a special flower I had.
I ended up walking cross country back to the campsite (my points were relatively close) right as it was starting to warm up. Rodney and I completed our data forms and then broke camp and jumped in the car to drive to Nevada.
Our next fire – Sagehen – was in the Toiyabe National Forest across the stateline. Again, this was a very long drive. Storm clouds continually built over and around the White Mountains as we made our way toward the state line.
Approaching the White Mountains, it just got worse.
Once through Benton Hot Springs and into Nevada we had to drive up a state highway and find a dirt road to drive, about 12k until the fire. Rodney was worried about the condition of said dirt road; he does NOT have a four-wheel drive nor high clearance. He was right to be worried. We got close and then were stopped by large rocks in the road. They don't look like much here, but they were undercarriage-scrapers.
We were close enough that we could see the beginning of the habitat, and decided to discard the fire as a survey site. It looked even more sparse than the Pinyon Pine we had surveyed at Birch and we hadn’t had any luck there. In addition, no one is sure that BBWO even use Pinyon Pine as habitat. On top of that, this was coming for us.
After a 3+ hour drive we turned around and headed back the way we had just come. We had passed a turn for another of our fires – Dexter - on the way out to Sagehen, so we went back to the Dexter turnoff. This was a much kinder dirt road. We drove through lots of interesting habitats on the way out. There was one whole hillside that was covered in Aspen. On the map we saw there were several springs in the area, so that’s what was watering them in the middle of the arid landscape. After that we went through a stand of Lodgepole Pine and then we got to a stand of Jeffrey Pine, some of which was burned. This was Dexter. We scouted the fire as the clouds increasingly threatened rain. As we finished eating dinner it started, so we dove in our tents at 6:00 p.m. Here's my tent at Dexter.
It rained off and on all night long. We were at 8200 feet, so it was chilly and damp. At 4:30 a.m. the rain was still going and Rodney and I had a cross-tent chat about what to do. We decided to hold off getting up until it stopped raining. (Most birds stay hunkered down during such weather, so surveying would have been fruitless.) At 5:00 a.m. it stopped and we got up to start our day. I volunteered to do the cross country portion of the fire. This involved heading down a hill into a valley with a spring and then climbing back up the other side.
When I hit the top of the opposite ridge it looked like it was going to pour again, so Rodney and I talked on our walkie-talkies and decided to call it a day. We both had found birds, so felt we had accomplished what we set out to do. When I returned to camp, I discovered my tent was still wet, so packing up was messy.
We then drove to Mono Lake to do some sightseeing. At Rush Creek I actually got a great look at a Willow Flycatcher (WIFL), which was very gratifying. Many of you may remember I worked on a field crew looking for WIFL several years ago. There is an outlier population near Mono Lake, which live in wild rose bushes (as opposed to the usual willows).
Rodney and I then took a long leisurely birding stroll down Rush Creek towards Mono Lake. We saw one Yellow-headed Blackbird amidst all the Red-winged ones. The sky was moody, the birds plentiful.
Sierra Nevada from Rush Creek
We were able to be tourists for an afternoon because the fire the next day – Azusa – was just off Highway 120 near the gas station. It was steep yet easy to scout because it was small. This is when we set up at Lee Vining Creek Campground and were able to stay there for two nights. This is Lee Vining Creek - the view from our picnic table.
What a relief to not have to break down camp every day!
The next fire - Azusa - provided a great wildlife encounter. More on that soon.