Sequoia Audubon Society
                              San Mateo County, California

Field Trip Report

Mono Lake Basin & Eastern Sierra Slope
July 21-23rd 2017 by Adam Dudley

Thirteen birders had an exciting visit to 9 of the premier birding areas in the Mono Lake Basin along the Eastern Sierras. This fast-paced trip explored a variety of habitats and focused on target species that are difficult to see elsewhere.

Mono-Group-Shot-DP-by-Sonny-Mencher
Mono Group Shot by Sonny Mencher

We arrived in June Lake, checked into the motel, and headed out to a local birding site for a relaxing, but windy, afternoon walk. This was an introduction to some of the commoner species in this area: Clark's Nutcracker, Cassin's Finch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Gray Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows, and Green-tailed Towhee.

Cassin's-Finch-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Cassin's Finch by Donna Pomeroy

After dinner, we continued towards Mono Lake, South Tufa area. As the sun set behind the Sierras we visited a spot providing excellent vantage to look for nocturnal birds emerging from their daytime roosts. Parking the cars, we immediately heard Common Nighthawks right above us! Over the next 30 minutes we were treated to a fantastic show as the birds tumbled, chased, and dived at each other, sometimes overhead and alongside our position. At nightfall, we drove towards the highway via a dirt road and were delighted as a Common Poorwill hunted and fed before us. Everyone in the group got great views in the 'scope. We made it back to our beds by 10:00 pm.

Common-Poorwill-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Common Poorwill by Donna Pomeroy

Saturday, we went to Wildrose Canyon for dawn. After a few minutes, we heard our first Plumbeous Vireo in a stand of aspens; a specialty of this Canyon and a target species. Continuing slowly up the canyon, we noted both Gray and Dusky Flycatchers among many of the common species. We also had views of Plumbeous Vireo feeding young. Two very unusual observations for this area were unfortunately seen by only a few of our group: a Hermit Warbler; and a stunning pair of Lawrence's Goldfinches. Juniper Titmouse was similarly elusive. However, the Canyon's reputation was well deserved with 43 species seen in total: other birds of note included 3 species of Hummingbird (Black-chinned, Rufous and Calliope), Green-tailed Towhee, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Clark's Nutcracker, Cassin's Finch, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Nashville Warbler. Many species of butterfly were also seen in this canyon.

Next was Chidago Canyon and our birding started with incredible views of a covey of Mountain Quail! A handsome male perched atop a tree branch for 10 minutes, allowing everyone to enjoy a view with the 'scope. We had good views of the recently-described Sagebrush Sparrow, but had to be content with only hearing Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (new species as of 2016). Even in the desert heat we located all our target species including hearing several flocks of noisy Pinyon Jays, getting excellent views of Black-throated Sparrows and Sage Thrashers, and seeing several Loggerhead Shrikes.

Mountain-Quail-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Mountain Quail by Donna Pomeroy

We left Chidago Canyon happy to have seen such quality birds, and travelled to our lunch stop via the eastern shores of Lake Crowley. Here we found an impressive diversity of both water and land birds, with highlights being 2 more species of sparrow (Vesper and Savannah), several Horned Larks, 3 Red-necked Phalaropes, a Caspian Tern, and 7 White-faced Ibis.

After lunch, we hiked at higher elevation with great views of several White-headed woodpeckers, a specialty of the area. Further along the trail, the group flushed a female Sooty Grouse and her chicks! We had prolonged, close views of the adult perched in a tree as she assessed the danger to her family. Meanwhile, Mountain Chickadees, Clark's Nutcrackers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Thick-billed Fox Sparrows were seen in the surrounding trees. As evening approached, we returned to the cars. However, the trail had one last surprise - we first heard, and then saw a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers! Not only was this completely unexpected, but we got to see fascinating behavior of one bird apparently ant-bathing high up on a tree branch. After all the excitement, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and a relaxing evening.

White-headed-Woodpecker-by-Donna-Pomeroy
White-headed Woodpecker by Donna Pomeroy

Black-backed-Woodpecker-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Black-backed Woodpecker by Donna Pomeroy

Inyo Craters, three north-south-aligned steam-explosion craters 8200ft above sea level, were Sunday morning's destination. Standing at the rim of the crater, we marveled at the breathtaking views! From the rim, we watched Western Tanagers flying into the crater to drink. Cassin's Finches were common here too, and the group had excellent views of a male Red Crossbill on the ground as he fed on the rim slope. Fabulously, we heard, and then saw, a female Evening Grosbeak fly from the crater, land briefly in a tree, and then head off into the forest for the day. After spending 2.5 hours exploring this amazing area, we saw Thick-billed Fox Sparrows, Western Wood-Peewees, Dusky Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, Brewer's and Chipping Sparrows, and Pine Siskins.

Rufous-crowned-Sparrow-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Rufous-crowned Sparrow by Donna Pomeroy

Our last birding site of the trip was a small resort, at 10,000 foot elevation, near Virginia Lakes. Re-filled seed feeders had the area buzzing with Pine Siskins and Cassin's Finches. After a few minutes, a pair of Rosy-Finches joined the throng, and we all had excellent views of the relatively tame birds as they fed! Fantastic! We explored the resort and found our 3rd species of Empidonax flycatcher for the weekend, identified by its call as a Cordilleran Flycatcher! Amazingly, this bird was in the same location as one we saw in 2016. It was catching insects and repeatedly visiting a potential nest site. We made a report to local birders, and a pair have subsequently been documented breeding at this location. A great record!

Gray-crowned-Rosy-Finch-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch by Donna Pomeroy

This final sighting completed the trip and consolidated our extraordinary run of good birds for the weekend: a total of 110 bird species, diverse plant life, and 29 butterfly species. Here's looking forward to our next visit to this incredible area!

Belding's-Ground-Squirrels-by-Donna-Pomeroy
Belding's Ground Squirrels by Donna Pomeroy

2017 S.A.S.