06-26-09 through 06-29-09 Yuba Pass and Sierra Valley

DAY 0: (Arrival)
After a three year hiatus from this lovely area it was time to return--especially since the economy required we cancel our trip to Ecuador... So on Friday, a small group of us drove up to stay at our favorite Butte's Resort in Sierra City. Mike and Lindy were very happy to see us again and Cricket and I remembered just why we love this area so much. We won't wait another three years before returning...

Cricket and I actually spent Thursday night in Lodi with her parents. We left Lodi early and had some time to explore a few areas before reaching the lodge. A quick work of the Sierra Valley produced fantastic views of several target species, Black-billed Magpie, Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee and Sage Thrasher, all of which were seen at one large pullout a few miles west of Loyalton. We had brief looks at a Prairie Falcon harassing a Golden Eagle over a large barn and a fire damaged ridge, as well as Clark's Nutcrackers. Swainson's Hawk was seen in the town itself, as well as Eurasian Collared Doves. We were unable to find any Lewis's Woodpeckers despite a lengthy search. Wilson's Snipe were occasionally perched in full view along the road.

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Drawing (Brewer's Sparrow adult): Matthew Dodder

We doubled back and made our way to the metal bridge on Marble Hot Springs Road. (It was hardly necessary to stop at the intersection of Westside Road and Calpine Road as we had already located our two target Sparrows.) The usual highlights were easily located, including White-faced Ibis, Sandhill Crane, Virginia Rail, Willet, Sage Thrasher and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Heading up the hill along Hwy 49 we could hear several birds we didn't stop for including Hermit and MacGillivray's Warblers. We later found both of these species at the Yuba Pass campground. A brief walk north of the campground produced Hammond's Flycatcher and fleeting looks at Mountain Quail. Red-breasted Sapsucker and Hairy Woodpeckers were detected in several places, but no Black-backed, White-headed Woodpeckers or Williamson's Sapsuckers.... yet. Cassin's Finches foraged for grit along the shoulder as well as Pine Siskin. In the distance a Purple Finch was heard.

We began to see a few members of our group at this time, Pati and Patty told us they had already been to Bassets and Evening Grosbeaks and Calliope Hummingbirds awaited us there. Lori Cuesta and her friend Shane were checking into the campground and would do some recon for us before reporting to the lodge for dinner. Everyone brought a little food to our welcome mixer at the lodge and when everyone was present we discussed plans for the following morning.

DAY 1: (Yuba Pass)
We departed the lodge at 6:00 am, to explore the campground. Evening Grosbeaks and Cassin's Finches were easily found along the road and in the trees as well as Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Mountain Chickadee, Western Wood Pewee. We began by walking on the north side of the road and while we heard Mountain Quail frequently, we could not get looks. "Large-billed" Fox Sparrows were positively everywhere. Hammond's Flycatcher was calling from the shady pines and when finally found, we noticed the long primary projection and unique proportions of the bird--things that would prove useful for comparison a little later when we found Dusky Flycatcher nesting in a short bush in a sunlit clearing. Olive-sided Flycatcher was ubiquitous. A nesting pair of White-headed Woodpeckers was attending young in a very short tree stump not far from the trail. We continued down the trail finding Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper and Nashville Warbler. Still further we heard the rich song of MacGillivray's Warbler and were rewarded with fantastic looks at the bird.

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Patty McGann

At this point things were slowing down a bit and it seemed as if we were not going to find any additional birds. Before turning around however, we reached a shady area where a grove of pines created a somewhat different atmosphere. Scanning the sparse tops of the trees my eyes caught a bump in the tree... like an upright pinecone. Just as I was about to say the words, Ashutosh beat me to them: Northern Pygmy Owl. The small Owl was being harassed by a nearby White-headed Woodpecker that clearly wasn't happy. The Pygmy Owl was also growing impatient with the noisy Woodpecker. Both stood their ground however and we watched for several minutes with extreme interest. Then another presence came to our attention. I spotted a second Northern Pygmy Owl that was perched in a nearby tree. The two were clearly a pair, and dealing with increased harassment from the Woodpecker. Eventually, one Owl flew to meet the other and the second Owl flew off. The Woodpecker was not far behind, following the second Owl to the tree. This went on for a minute or two and we lost track of which Owl was which. Still, it was very exciting and a lifer for several members of the group.

Photo: Patty McGann

Returning to the parking lot we had exceptional views of Hermit, Wilson's and Yellow Warbler in rapid succession. From the campground, we strolled down the south fire road and heard House Wren and more Hammond's Flycatchers. In previous years we've found Pine Grosbeak in this area, and one year we had a heard-only Varied Thrush. None of those materialized this year, but I briefly heard what I thought was a Winter Wren. This would be more expected at lower elevation, so I'm not swearing to it. We then drove up the hill beyond the cattle guard to a trailhead where we had had Black-backed Woodpecker and Northern Goshawk on a previous trip. No luck with those today, but a fantastic Williamson's Sapsucker show was in store, including some unusual fly-catching behavior none of us had seen prior to this. Today's bird was a male, and the red throat was visible for the first time for some members of our group.

Photo: Patty McGann

Next it was off to Bassets where we expected to find Calliope Hummingbird at the store. Sure enough, there were 2-3 males and a female visiting the feeders. We had had a questionable Hummingbird in our Pygmy Owl area that I believed was a female Calliope, but the looks were inconclusive. Now, we were seeing unquestionable Calliopes. Rufous Hummingbird and Anna's were also seen this morning in various places. The popsicles and ice cream were a welcome break from the heat of the day. Several folks also purchased the John Muir Laws book on Sierra Birds and the local checklist. Unfortunately, while some of our group was inside, an Osprey flew upstream beside the road. We would all get it later however.

Photo: Patty McGann

From there we drove up to Sardine Lake, but found the extreme heat too much to allow the hike up to the dam. Instead we made the walk through the small boardwalk trail. A pair of Cassin's Vireo was quickly dispatched here, and Wilson's and Yellow Warblers as well. In the shaded section of the trail, along the outside edge of the "lake" we encountered Nashville Warbler with a distinctly different song from that heard earlier. MacGillivray's and 2-3 more Nashville Warblers were also found here. I think we also found Killdeer here, the first for the trip.

It was time to head back for a short rest before dinner, but we stopped in a roadside burn to give one last look for Black-backed Woodpecker... We ended up seeing another Western Tanager, always nice.

Our potluck barbecue was wonderful. Lots of delicious food and a little discussion about the next day. Everyone agreed the Pygmy Owls were a major highlight of our first full day, but many folks chose other birds for their personal favorites. We opted not to go owling... too tired.

DAY 2: (Sierra Valley)
Again we departed the lodge at 6:00, meeting at the research station on Hwy 49 just west of Bassett's. Big excitement here... literally! We found a mother Black Bear and cub walking up slope from the campground. That was pretty exciting until we remembered cubs often come in twos... Suddenly, I was a little nervous about getting in-between mother and cub. Elsewhere in the area we found American Dipper at the bridge and a heard only Swainson's Thrush in the willows. It should be mentioned that Hermit Thrushes were everywhere on Hwy 49, but this was the first Swainson's. Wilson's, Yellow, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, Hermit and MacGillivray's Warblers were also present here if only in voice.

We caravanned into the Sierra Valley, stopping at the large barn outside of Sierraville. There we had our first looks at White-faced Ibis, Wilson's Snipe, and Black-billed Magpie. A single California Quail was just outside the paddock and then flew back toward the barn. The previous day Cricket and I had found Prairie Falcon here, as well as Clark's Nutcrackers and a Golden Eagle. Today we saw American Kestrel and I was beginning to think I had made an error in identification. Later, I was relieved when we saw a Prairie Falcon headed straight for us over the field.

It was starting off to be another wonderful day and we hadn't even reached the gravel turnout of two days ago. When we finally arrived, we ticked off Brewer's Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee and a single bush with 7 Sage Thrashers. Also found here were two Western Kingbirds and a female Bullock's Oriole. For me, the highlight of the day was the uncommon opportunity to compare two very different, but quite non-descript, Sparrows side by side. But then, I love Sparrows. Their body structures alone made identification very simple, as well as their different flight style and of course, voice.

We continued to Loyalton, where we did not find Lewis's Woodpeckers or Swainson's Hawk. Doubling back toward Sierraville we visited the cemetery beside the rodeo grounds. The gate was locked but that didn't stop us from finding Pygmy Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Chipping Sparrow and a brilliant male Mountain Bluebird. After that, we stopped at the grocery store. Western Kingbirds were nesting beside the road on a phone pole and a vocal Lazuli Bunting was seen in the weedy meadow. Shane, a real lover of Raptors was the first to spot the single Swainson's Hawk over the distant field.

Come lunch, we were at the metal bridge on Marble Hot Springs Road. We began to see and hear Savannah Sparrows in the grassy areas, as well as more Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows and Sage Thrashers. It was blazingly hot, shadeless but beautiful. The Yellow-headed Blackbirds were busy choking out their tortured love songs while Cliff and Barn Swallows crisscrossed the marsh. Virginia Rail was seen skulking among the reeds and a Ring-billed Gull was watching for fallen chicks, even catching a young Cliff Swallow and carrying it off. Breeding plumaged Willet as seen in the distance, as well as a few Canada Geese and numerous richly colored White-faced Ibis and a few Black-necked Stilts. Only one pair of Sandhill Cranes was detected low in the marsh, but two days earlier, Cricket and I had seen several around the valley. Overhead, as we continued to search for Golden Eagle or additional Swainson's Hawks, a pair of Peregrine Falcons appeared, one seemed to be carrying something in its talons. We kept going along this road, finding Pied-billed Grebe, Gadwall and Ruddy Duck in the shallow ponds, but the American Bittern we heard continued to elude discovery. No Black Terns were found anywhere, but I understand their numbers have dropped considerably in recent years. In the distance we spotted American White Pelicans coming in for a landing somewhere ahead of us.

Photo: Patty McGann

Photo: Pati Rouzer

Photo: Patty McGann

Rounding the loop we made our way back to Sattley. In the wide sage area we saw numerous Sage Thrashers, almost more than could be counted as well as occasional Horned Lark on the barbed wire. We also got good looks at a female Pronghorn... a mammal species I didn't remember could be found in the valley. We also made a brief stop at the pine grove that I continue to believe might be a productive birding spot... but again, no luck. It was deemed unnecessary to stop along Mountain Quail road as we had already found several Green-tailed Towhees...

We made the return drive to the campground and let folks off for a couple of hours before our "left overs" barbecue back at the lodge. I spent my break finishing the checklist and a much needed nap after that. We had left over pasta salad, hummus, chips and guacamole, chicken breast and marinated tri tip steak. There were also lots of grilled vegetables, cookies, cakes and pie. It was fantastic, and made the original idea of having our farewell dinner at Harringtons seem ridiculous. Both Vaux's and White-throated Swifts were foraging over the river and Belted Kingfisher was heard briefly below us. After dinner we went over the checklist, but things changed in the middle as a single Townsend's Solitaire landed in the cherry tree visible form the deck. It should be said this tree also attracted American Robin, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager and Band-tailed Pigeon... a good tree to say the least! We discussed our favorite birds of the weekend, and while the Pygmy Owls were once again on the list, everyone had different moments they chose to name as their favorite. It was a wonderful trip, and thank you everyone who attended, brought delicious home made food and helped us gather a huge list of species for our third group visit to this marvelous area. The only bad news was that three of us lingered after dark near the deck and heard Common Nighthawk over the ridge. There was no way we would have been able to see it at that point, but at least it's on the list. Anyway, thank you everyone. Until next time!

To read the Mono Basin portion of this trip, Cricket's and my three-day getaway, please go to July 09)

Canada Goose
Ruddy Duck
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Black-crowned Night Heron
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Swainson's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Praire Falcon
California Quail
Mountain Quail
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Black-necked Stilt
Wilson's Snipe
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Band-tailed Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
Northern Pygmy Owl
Common Nighthawk (h)
Vaux's Swift
White-throated Swift
Anna's Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
White-headed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood Pewee
Hammond's Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (h)
Western Kingbird
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Steller's Jay
Clark's Nutcracker
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Mountain Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren (h?)
Marsh Wren
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend's Solitaire
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Sage Thrasher
European Starling
Cassin's Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler (h)
Townsend's Warbler (h)
Hermit Warbler

MacGillivray's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Tricolored Blackbird (?)
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
Purple Finch
Cassin's Finch
House Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow


The recently added-to-house-list Red-breasted Nutatch was back in our yard this morning. In the afternoon, as I was grillling on the deck, a Great Egret flew over our airspace, adding yet another species to our list!


A quick stop at Shoreline Lake during lunch produced great looks at the Brandt's Cormorant on the lake. When I arrived, it was sitting on the small dock across from the Casey Forebay, with several American Coots and a Double-crested Cormorant a few inches away. The different qualities of black color and pattern on the back was especially visible, as were the different head shape, throat color and bill shape--a very nice, nearly arm's length comparison.There were plenty of Forster's Terns feeding as the water entered the slough from the forebay, but no Black Terns in sight. Several young Forster's we visible on the island. Also present on Adobe Creek, where the the smaller creek joins it, was the single male American Wigeon. American White Pelicans were impossible to miss and many of them were quite close to the trail, feeding along side dozens of immature Mallards, Gadwall and a Common Moorhen. I also saw a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe near the small observation. A single Long-billed Curlew was visible on the mudflats of the slough.


This was much our same experience. Cricket and I arrived late afternoon to look for the Indigo Bunting. Winds made finding anything difficult, but very soon after we embarked on the trail from the parking area a dark, uniformly colored bird came from above the trail and flew down toward the trees near the Bobcat sign. We saw it
briefly in the trees at some distance, indeed an Indigo Buntint. A second tannish bird, probably a female accompanied it into the trees, but we did not get a look at it. Also present in the area was an Ash-throated Flycatcher.


Yesterday I accompanied an out-of-town birder to Charleston Slough around mid day. Almost immediately after stepping out of the car, we saw an adult Peregrine Falcon circling over the slough. Also airborne was a group of American White Pelicans coming in for a landing. Waterfowl along Adobe Creek included Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard and Ruddy Duck. One Pied-billed Grebe was diving in the shallows near the low viewing area, and a COMMON MOORHEN eventually appeared. One surprise was a male American Wigeon near the junction with the other small watercourse, Forster's Terns were hard to miss, as were American Avocet .

We scanned the levy for the famous Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, but that didn't have the desired effect, nor did we have any luck with Black Tern. We did however see a Bonaparte's Gull on one of the posts. Shoreline Lake was very quiet, perhaps because of the boaters, but we did see a few Surf Scoter and Double-crested Cormorant. Later, I was able to locate the Brandt's Cormorant on the west side. One member of our little group was also able to pick out a Caspian Tern .


The Cattle Egret between the Palo Alto Baylands Duck Pond and Palo Alto Airport was present today at 12:30. I made a quick circuit around the area and caught up with the bird again about 20 minutes later flying toward the palm trees by the pond.


It's taken me a few of days to absorb the end of spring class, and the magnitude of your generosity, both to me and to SCVAS. Your gift to the chapter comes during a very challenging economic time, and the significance of this is not lost on me or the rest of Audubon. The birdathon, and fall fundraising efforts, as well as other events do much to fuel the good work of the chapter, but is spontaneous contributions like yours that truly inspire us. So thank you once again!

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of my teaching at Palo Alto Adult School with you was truly wonderful. I've been reflecting on the past decade, the many birds we've seen together (340 if you count Snowy Owl!), the nearly 250 field trips we have taken together, and the lasting friendships we have formed over the years. The experience has changed me forever and, next to meeting Cricket, has meant more to me than anything.

Together we've explored the many complicated ways things fit together in nature--the changing habitat, the moving weather patterns, annual migration, and courtship, breeding... the natural and not-so-natural progression of events, as well as their effects on the lifeforms around us. Specifically, we've witness the way birds adapt to whatever humans can throw at them, and we've marveled at their resilience. Unfortunately, we've also seen how they suffer. In short, we've watched evolution in real-time.

Back in 1999 I answered an invitation posted on SBB for a beginning birding instructor at PAAS. I called the office immediately and got an interview with the principal the next day. I had no clear plan, and no teaching experience, and I had only a rough outline of topics I wanted to cover, but I had endless enthusiasm. The then principal, Henry Page who had enormous faith, hired me on the spot and then informed me of the hourly rate I would receive. This was shocking news to me because all along I was assuming this was a volunteer position... Suddenly, the pressure to make the class  worthwhile was on, and not surprisingly, I soon realized how challenging it is for teachers to generate lessons. I eyed my "library" of 7 or 8 bird books and soon decided it would not be enough. I saved some money to make necessary additions... At that time, I'd been a birder for 22 years already, but hadn't a clue how to teach the subject. I've had a greater respect for educators ever since.

Next, I set about assembling my own bird photograph collection using my friend's film camera. I borrowed my parent's old slide projector and watched the presentation on my studio apartment wall. My friends often got previews of the show while we sipped salty margaritas in the dark, and they just as often suggested my photography skills could use some improvement. At the first class meeting, I began my slide show with precisely 14 slides, some of which were duplicate species! My handouts were primitive, borrowed heavily from Roger Tory Peterson's field guide, and produced on different colored sheets. For years, the office groaned every time I walked in with my originals and requested gold for Raptors, blue for Ducks, tan for Shorebirds... The first class, spring 1999 attracted a very eager (and trusting) 14 students. Quite a coincidence as that was exactly how many slides I had. The principal at the time decided to take a chance despite the low registration, and allowed the class to go forward. I was thrilled, and terrified. Despite that anxiety, I learned was that these 14 people had as deep a love for birds as I did, and that simple fact made it possible for me continue, against the odds.

Since that time, the class has undergone many changes, starting with beginning material, moving through intermediate, finally reaching advanced about 4 years ago. We've seen probably more than a hundred students. We've had only two field trips cancelled (one of which left my future in-laws stranded in Merced NWR without an instructor... But that worked out all right I guess, because they invited me over for dinner... twice. And soon their daughter showed up in class.) Anyway, we've had surprisingly few rainy days, and so may days in the sun. We've had scores of group lunches, dinners and even breakfasts. We've seen Franklin's Gull, Brown Booby, Yellow-green Vireo and Bobolink and many other rare and beautiful birds. We've crossed paths with Striped Skunk, Red Squirrel, Muskrat, Coyote, River Otter, Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Tule Elk and many other mammals, reptiles, insects and flowers over the years. We've been bitten, stung, poked, scratched and poison oaked... We've gotten sunburned and dehydrated, dropped and broken our cameras, replaced scopes and binoculars and gotten so hungry hot and tired we thought we'd never do this again. And yet, here we are. Still crazy after all this time.

And each week in class, Cricket sits in the front row, smiling at me during the lecture, reminding me how important this group of friends has become to my (our) life. It humbles me.

I can honestly say that this class has only succeeded this past decade because of all of you and your unwavering support. What I lacked in teaching experience in the beginning, I continue to learn from you. From the many eager questions I struggle to answer, to the books and articles I read while preparing for class, to my mid-weekly habitat updates and post-trip summaries, you demand I keep learning right beside you. You have enriched my understanding of birds and so have contributed to the the improvement of this class year after year after year. So thank you once again. I look forward to many more years of learning from you and have many more adventures. You are truly wonderful!

Obviously, everyone's birding skills have advanced, including mine, the past ten years. While I like to think that is due to class, I don't really believe that. I see myself advancing along with everyone else, and I have to admit that the true reason for our group's advancement is simply that we share a love of birds, and a desire to make sense of it all. We instruct, inspire and accompany eachother on this fabulous journey. I couldn't ask for more.

Now, let's get back to our regularly scheduled summer, and find those "5 right Terns" which lead directly back to fall class!