Tuesday, 19 January 2016

CALIFORNIA 2016: mountains and deserts (17-19 January).

Continuing our enjoyable California trip, Matt and I headed further inland visiting snowy mountains and pleasantly cool deserts.

17 January. We left Motel 6 in Lebec as it was getting light at 07:00 and drove up to Mount Pinos with some trepidation.  A local newspaper in the motel had a front page all about chaos on the roads the previous weekend with 'snow bunnies' from the big cities flocking to the mountains, blocking the roads and causing long delays. The road started climbing and soon there were patches of snow beside it. A sign warning the road was only passable for chains was slightly disconcerting but as it seemed fine we took it as an advisory and continued cautiously. As we drove higher the snow became thicker and in places was piled up beside the road where a snowplough had cleared it. at about 08:00 we reached the end of the road, a car park at the Nordic Base at 8,300 feet above sea level and surrounded by fairly open conifer forest. There were only about a dozen vehicles there and we noted that none of them had chains. We bought a $5 Adventure Pass that allowed us to stop and walk around and a $2 trail map, although as all trails were under at least a foot of snow it was not money well spent. We climbed up to the nearest ridge, at times through knee deep snow which made it hard work. We were at about 8,500 feet (the summit of Mount Pinos is 8,850). It was superb to be high up in the mountains, despite not reaching a natural viewpoint and their being few birds in evidence - just 2 Steller's Jays, a flock of Pygmy Nuthatches and an endearing Mountain Chickadee. We returned to the car park and walked down the road for a couple of kms seeing a few more nuthatches and eventually an impressive White-headed Woodpecker. It had been our main target for the area and traffic was building up making walking the road less pleasant. We returned to the car to find the car park overflowing, it was only 10:00.  We drove down the road and most of the pull-ins were filling up. We stopped at a couple where the laying snow wasn't so thick in the hope of seeing some birds feeding on the ground but couldn't find any. Four White-throated Swifts overhead and a pair of Western Bluebirds were some compensation as was a Golden-crowned Sparrow and a flock of Oregon Juncos by some houses lower down. 

snow on the higher slopes of Mount Pinos
walking in the snow was hard going

tangled tree

Mountain Chickadee, one of the few birds seen, taken a second too late
Raven at Mount Pinos
Mount Pinos Nordic Base

the lower slopes were still covered in snow

Golden-crowned Sparrow
the dullest American Sparrow we saw, by some distance
We left the mountains and headed east towards Lancaster in the Antelope Valley where, according to ebird, a flock of 38 Mountain Plovers had been seen the previous day. On the way we stopped at Quail Lake where a flock of 260 Goosander was most impressive. Matt noticed that one of the Western Grebes had an orange bill, suggestive of Clark's, but it wasn't close and we couldn't see any other differences (Guy McCaskie later told us bill colour was diagnostic and really the only way to tell them in winter). A pair of Crossbills at Holiday Lake were unexpected, although if I had checked ebird more carefully I would have found there had been 8 Crossbills and a Williamson's Sapsucker there at the start of the year. We continued on to the intersection of 110 Street E at E Avenue but drew a blank. The habitat did not look suitable so we continued to 50J, another location were mountain Plovers had been seen at the start of the year.  There were 8 plovers in the fields there but disappointingly they were Killdeer, a new bird for Matt but not under the circumstances he wanted. We drove around checking fields and Matt decided to try ebird again. Yesterdays sighting at 110E mentioned them being in, flying out of and later having returned to a green field which we had not seen. I looked more closely at the location and noticed a J on the end. 110 Street E at E Avenue J. We quickly drove to 110J, saw a green field as we approached, a quick scan of the nearer part of the field revealed it to be empty but just as my hopes were sinking Matt spotted some plovers in the back half of the field. Mountain Plovers. We counted 60 and another 46 Killdeer.  Matt could now enjoy both. The plovers soon moved right to the back of the field, no good for photos but OK through a telescope. We continued on to Saddleback Butte State Park which had an impressive bird list, but only a Rock Wren around the areas we accessed.  Finally we tried a site for Le Conte's Thrasher at 145Q with our expected lack of success, but it was hardly out of the way, before driving to Beaumont where Matt had booked us into a Motel 6 the previous evening.

Mountain Plover at 110J, one of the closer of the 60 seen

magnified rather too much
uncultivated land nearby
Joshua Tree at Saddleback Butte
view from Saddleback Butte State Park

more thrasher habitat
tracks in the sand, we thought most likely roadrunner
a film (TV show or advert) was being shot outside the distant building

18 January.  We left Beaumont at first light and drove south up into the San Jacinto Mountains.  There was snow on the ground but not as much as at Mount Pinos.  We tried Lake Fulmor which was mainly frozen, walked the start of the Black Mountain Trail where Matt found a Townsend's Solitaire which dropped off its perch on the top of a dead tree just as I got my binoculars onto it.  A 4WD made a lot of noise passing and 5 minutes later even more having turned back (the track was quite icy in places).  Fortunately the solitaire reappeared on top of another dead tree, very nice.  we spent an hour or so walking around Hurley Creek camp ground (it was almost deserted) and Matt picked a Slate-coloured Junco out from amongst 30+ Oregons.  Otherwise it was quiet.  We tried Lake Hemet where an adult Bald Eagle was impressive, if distant, and continued down out of the mountains to Palm Springs.  
early morning driving up into the mountains
view from near Lake Fulmor

mostly frozen Lake Fulmor
Oregon Junco

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebirds

Acorn Wodpeckered tree, we found the shell of an acorn in one of the holes
not as much snow on the hills as there was at Mount Pinos
Steller's Jay at Hurley Creek

House Finches
Mountain Chickadee, no better than my previous effort
Northern Flicker at Hurley Creek
we had a good ten minutes for woodpeckers
Hairy Woodpecker at Hurley Creek
Nuttall's Woodpecker
leaving the mountains

distant views of Palm Springs

We arrived at the Living Desert Museum and spend a very enjoyable couple of hours in the car park watching Costa's Hummingbirds.  It was then a short drive to our Motel 6 in Palm Canyon Drive.
Costa's Hummingbird in the Living Desert Museum car park, it was almost the first bird we saw
tiny but quite aggressive, while we were watching  it shot off after an overflying rival and chased it away
the throat 'shield' was reminiscent of Superb Bird-of-paradise
taken at 1/640th second and still its wings are completely blurred
the purple head and throat were stunning when tehy caught the light
House Finch
Northern Mockingbird
Black Phoebe


Say's Phoebe

19 January.  We left our motel at 06:45 and drove to Big Morongo arriving at 07:10.  The car park was full of birds with White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Ladder-backed Woodpecker in quick succession. We wandered along the marsh boardwalk seeing Lincoln's Sparrow and Marsh Wren from it and several California Thrashers in a canyon, a very enjoyable two hours. 

palm tree in Big Morongo car park
it was easy to imagine how the area could be superb for migrants

somewhere we felt 

an inquisitive California Scrub Jay
it had clearly been fed regularly
and its confiding nature won me over to part with some biscuits
a showy California Thrasher
Hermit Thrush, still impressing
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
We headed for Joshua Tree and parked at the ranger station/information centre hearing a distant Cactus Wren calling. It took a while to track down, to a vacant lot where there were two, not helped by noisy traffic drowning it out. We drove into Joshua Tree National Park stopping for a Greater Roadrunner than ran across the road, as it is supposed to, just before the entrance. 
Cactus Wren
Greater Roadrunner
fortunately it had not run far

Last year's America the Beautiful Annual Pass (bought in Arizona) was still valid. In the park we drove across to the southern exit stopping at Hidden Valley (Rock Wren), Cactus Garden (nothing) and the start of the Geology Tour Road.  Here we walked a section of desert finding Sagebrush, Brewer's and Black-throated Sparrows. On the north side of the road I followed up a call, there were so few birds anything was worth looking for.  Amazingly it led me to a pair of Le Conte's Thrashers which fortunately performed well.  We continued trying Smoke Tree Wash (seeing little in half an hour) before leaving the National Park.  
Joshua Tree National Park

Hidden Valley
inside Hidden Valley

popular with rock climbers
and Rock Wrens

I know which I'd rather see

Joshua Trees

Cactus Garden
Sagebrush Sparrow in the more open scrubby desert
very similar to and recently split from the Bell's Sparrows we had seen on the Soda Lake Road
Red-tailed Hawk
Le Conte's Thrasher
a very pleasant but unexpected surprise

Smoke Tree Wash

We drove down Box Canyon where a quick stop produced Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and reached North Shore as the sun dropped behind the Santa Rosa Mountains.  Our first look at the Salton Sea produced many Ring-billed and California Gulls, 4 Gambel's Quail and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers.  We drove south to Brawley, checking into the Desert Inn Motel where we had arranged to meet Guy McCaskie at 06:15.

North Shore as the sun set.

a superb sunset on another successful day

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