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.

1 comment:

Urban Wild said...

I enjoyed reading about your survey of Black-backed Woodpecker habitats. I went on a field trip in April 2009 with LA Audubon, led by Mary and Nick Freeman. We spent some time at a fire area just north of June Lake, on the E. side of 395. I don't know which fire it was from. My 'team' found a Black-backed Woodpecker after only 15 minutes of searching (we heard it drumming and followed the sound). It was surprisingly not far up the hill from the road. It was also an experience I will never forget, and the bird was a lifer for me.