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Fall 2002 Highlights in Inyo County (1/'03)

As happens every season, some birds arrive exactly as expected and, happily, some very unexpected birds arrive to add warmth and excitement to our cool months.

The only Pacific Loon of the fall was at Owens Lake 22 Oct while Common Loon was scarce although one at Ruwau Lake, 11,044, on 20 Oct set a new County high elevation record. This was the best year ever for scoters with nine Surf Scoters found throughout the Owens Valley and two White-wing Scoters at Tinemaha Reservoir and Furnace Creek Ranch (FCR). This scoter movement was part of a big picture of their movement throughout the western states. Two Long-tailed Ducks (Oldsquaw) were found. The one seen at FCR on 1 Nov was the first ever reported in Death Valley National Park and the other was found at Tinemaha Reservoir 30 Nov to 1 Dec.

A White-tailed Kite near Blackrock 10 Oct was a surprise. An immature Bald Eagle at FCR 2 Nov was exciting as there are only a few records from there. A Northern Goshawk at South Fork Bishop Creek 2 Sep and an adult Broad-winged Hawk at FCR 1 Nov were unexpected. Nine Merlin and seven Peregrine Falcons caused heart rates to race as fast as they did.

An adult and immature Common Moorhen spent the fall at FCR. Shorebirds provided many stimulating moments when Mountain Plovers were at Blackrock 10 Oct and Owens Lake 11 Oct, Ruddy Turnstones at Owens Lake 28-30 Aug and 23 Sep, many Sanderlings including an amazing 11 at Owens Lake 23 Sep, a Stilt Sandpiper near Independence 25 Aug was the 5th record ever, and two Red Phalaropes at Owens Lake 28 Aug and FCR 11 Oct. Most stunning was a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger at Owens Lake 19-21 Aug only the 3rd record for the County.

A White-winged Dove spent most of Aug into Sep in Big Pine and a male and female Ruddy Ground-Dove were at FCR. A rarely seen Short-eared Owl was at Owens Lake 22 Oct. Three juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were found at Big Pine 19 Oct, FCR 4-7 Oct and 3 Nov. An Eastern Phoebe was at FCR 12 Nov and a Western Kingbird there 6 Oct was the latest ever for Inyo. Two Northern Shrikes appeared at Bishop 28 Oct to present and FCR on 3 Nov.

A Bells Vireo was found in Bishop 4-7 Dec an amazing sighting since the last report for the Owens Valley was in 1976. A Red-eyed Vireo was in Birchim Canyon 21-25 Aug. Two Purple Martins were seen, one at Owens Lake 28 Aug and the other at North Haiwee Reservoir 21 Sep. Remarkable were the Barn Swallows that have lingered into Dec. Five Winter Wrens and three Varied Thrushes brightened the fall. A Gray Catbird was at Birchim Canyon 27 Oct and a Brown Thrasher was at Shoshone 28 Sep. Several Northern Parula were at Birchim Canyon from mid Aug into Sep. Five Palm Warblers were reported after 11 Oct. Among the rare (but expected in very small numbers) warblers were reports of 1 Blackpoll, 2 Black-and-white, 4 American Redstarts and 4 Northern Waterthrushes. Two very rare warblers also joined the crowd, a Mourning Warbler at Birchim Canyon 22 Aug and a Canada Warbler at North Haiwee Reservoir 8 Sep.

Many exciting sparrows were found with up to 4 American Tree Sparrows at FCR 1-30 Nov and up to 3 Clay-colored Sparrows there 29 Sep 5 Nov. However, the sparrow of the fall was a Le Contes Sparrow at FCR 6 Oct. There were the expected reports of 6 Swamp Sparrows, 10 White-throated Sparrows and 1 Harriss Sparrow. Five Chestnut-collared Longspurs were found in FCR and the Owens Valley along with a Painted Bunting in Bishop 5-6 Sep and a male Dickcissel at FCR 29 Sep. Blackbirds added excitement with a Bobolink at Independence 29 Sep, 2 Rusty Blackbirds at Death Valley in early Nov and a very rare Common Grackle at Panamint Springs 3 Nov. Rarely seen Purple Finches were in Rovana 20 Oct, China Ranch 2 Nov and FCR 2-5 Nov. A female Lawrences Goldfinch was at FCR 6 Oct and a male there 11-12 Oct while six colorful Evening Grosbeaks were at Aspendell 12 Oct.

All these reports are the result of many hours of hard work on the part of a number of observers: Rosie Beach, Todd Easterla, Rick Fridell, Jon Dunn, Debbie House, Chris Howard, Bob Hudson, Andrew & Leah Kirk, Guy McCaskie, Todd McGrath, Jim & Debby Parker, Jim Pike, Mike & Nancy Prather, Chris Rintoul, Miko Ruhlen, Zed Ruhlen, Mike San Miguel, Susan Steele, Kevin Wheeler, Kerry Wilcox, and James & Kay Wilson.

Now its time to don our woolens and search for the special expected and unexpected winter birds that will be here!

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Just after the beginning of the last century, water was taken from the Owens River south of Tinemaha Reservoir and channeled into the aqueduct for transport to Los Angeles. For all practical purposes this destroyed the thriving riparian habitat that had existed for ages from there to the Owens River delta over 60 miles to the south. In todays enlightened consciousness, this magnitude of destruction would be unthinkable. The courts have begun rectification of the damage and have ordered the City of Los Angeles, Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to rewater this section of the dried riverbed to mitigate, in part, for the damage they have caused the Owens Valley over the last few decades. The result is the Lower Owens River Project or LORP.

What this means to the birds that live all or part of their lives here will depend on how successful LADWP is in achieving the goals of the LORP. Over the last century riparian habitat in the western United States has dramatically declined and only 10% of that which existed in California a century ago remains. This is a major reason why many riparian obligate species are endangered, threatened, or species of special concern.

The reintroduction of a healthy, robust riparian corridor of willows and cottonwoods would encourage the repopulation of species such as Southwest Willow Flycatcher, Least Bells Vireo, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. All are State Endangered and the flycatcher and vireo are also Federally Endangered. Among other riparian dependent species that would profit from this enhanced habitat would be Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Blue Grosbeak as well as others. These three species are found in low numbers and are very sparsely distributed along the Owens River north of the aqueduct intake where water flows.

After a ten-day search along the river by Whitehorse Associates, no new willow growth was found! Two major contributing factors are water levels and cattle grazing. LADWP stated in their Draft EIR that it will control both problems by increasing water releases which will overflow banks when willow seeds are falling to aid in distribution and germination and by fencing cows out to protect tender, new willow growth from being browsed. Other serious questions are the increase in tules and Brown-headed Cowbirds that the LORP must face. Larger tracts of tules will please Marsh Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Yellowthroats but not many other species. Increased populations of breeding species will please the cowbirds that will have more nests to parasitize by laying their eggs for other species to feed and fledge.

Restoring the Owens River to its former splendor will not only be a boon to those species that breed or winter here but to the myriads of migrants who travel up the Owens Valley each spring and reverse their routes in fall. Ensuring a healthy riparian habitat will ensure the continued economic growth of the County. Build it and they (birds and people) will come!

For more information on the LORP visit

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The California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) is the official body that oversees the rare bird records in the state. Most states have such bodies, which are made up of experienced, dedicated birders from widely scattered parts of the state who are familiar with the status, distribution, and identification of birds found there.

The CBRC is composed of ten members who serve one term of three years and then sit out at least one year before being eligible for re-nomination. The secretary is presently a non-voting member with a one year term but can serve an unlimited number of terms. Jon Dunn of Rovana and Kristi Nelson of Lee Vining represent our local area. Three of the four who were just elected are neophytes to the committee. Every effort is made to have different areas within the state represented as well as finding new members with expert ability in and knowledge of field identification of birds as well as being a member of Western Field Ornithologists in CA. Any policing organization takes heat for bad decisions, and the CBRC receives its share, but most charges are based on the same differences of opinions and philosophies that are represented within the committee itself.

The CBRC has published a list of species that have been recorded so rarely in the state that any claims of sightings must be submitted for evaluation (see If one observes a listed bird and wants it accepted as an official record, they are required to provide documentation and send it to the secretary. The secretary organizes a package containing 15-18 records and sends them to the first CBRC member on the list who reviews the records. When finished he/she sends the package on to the second member listed while sending the Acceptance/Rejection comments to the secretary. On the first round, the reviewers do not see the comments of the other members, and no discussion is allowed about a specific record between members who have not yet reviewed the record. A record must receive nine accept votes to pass. If two members are not convinced by the documentation of the correct identification, the record is rejected. If identification is unquestioned, but natural occurrence is, it takes three reject votes to reject the record. Re-circulation of any record is up to the discretion of the secretary, or a request by any reviewer. Any reviewer may ask that it be discussed at the annual meeting, and the decision at the meeting is final. It differs from year to year, but 200-250 records pass through the committee annually. The average acceptance rate oscillates between 70-80%, which reflects not only the philosophical composition of the committee but the quality of documentation received.

Some become upset when the committee does not accept their observation but they must realize that this usually reflects on the quality of the documentation, not on whether or not they correctly identified the bird. On occasion, the observers may have been unfamiliar with the diagnostic characteristic that would have insured the sightings acceptance, and either did not notice it, or did not describe it. Some of the sightings submitted were incorrectly identified birds (some with unequivocal pictures), and the value of keeping these out of the literature is of critical importance. Few committee members can claim that they have never had any observation rejected, so the argument that committee members always accept each others sighting is baseless. The service rendered by this committee allows science to benefit from those who may lack professional ornithological credentials, but not the passion for knowledge and accuracy.

With the growth of citizen scientists, and a massive influx of birders and field ornithologists, it is possible to add to the ornithological body of information on status and distribution without the need to collect every bird to prove where it was seen and when. Many bird records are based on photographs, video and audiotapes as well as written documentation. An observer of a rare or less often seen species must write a convincing description telling the circumstances of the event including how long the bird was seen, the distance to the bird, lighting conditions, time of day, etc. An online electronic report form is at Also included should be how the observer eliminated a similar looking and more common species, and any photographs or tapes taken of the bird. The rule is the more rare the species is, the more out of season it is, the more difficult it is to separate from a similar looking species, the more detail must be provided.

The results are published annually in Western Birds, the journal of Western Field Ornithologists. The rejected sightings are of particular interest because the reason for rejection often provides cutting-edge knowledge that is not yet published in any field guide.

Rare bird photos taken from submitted records are at Of the current 170 reviewable species, 39 have been recorded in Inyo County, representing 23% of the total list. A number of Inyoites have followed the protocol for changing a personal, exciting, sighting into a scientific record insuring the advancement of ornithological knowledge in the County and Stateand none have a Ph.D. in ornithology!

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On Saturday, 10 May 2003, a group of birders celebrated International Migratory Bird Day by vacuuming the County to find as many bird species as they could. However, what lead up to this particular IMBD has a little history that should be shared. In 2000 an amazing 196 species were found and opened the question Can 200 species be found in an inland county without access to pelagic birds? In CA, coastal counties and those fronting on the Salton Sea can usually break the 200 mark without too much trouble but dry counties are another story. IMBD in 2001 was a bust due to horrific weather but in 2002, as observer after observer replied Yes as the list of bird species was read, we knew the day was one of the best ever but did we break the magical 200? No, we ONLY tallied 199 but the competitive gleam in the eyes of the group was electric, and vows were made to bring bigger and better vacuums next year!

A couple of months before IMBD, the guerilla war council convened and all species that were seen every year in good numbers were eliminated because they will come to us. We worked the list of target birds, and each group identified where each species could be found in their area. The lists were worked and reworked until each species had at least three groups looking for it in three different areas. Some species could only be found in one area and these were the Dont come home til you get it! species. Now all we needed was a large turnout of birds, birders, and great weather.

From dark oclock until dusk oclock, 41 observers (the most ever) scoured the Owens Valley, White Mountains and Deep Springs, Inyo Mountains, Eastern Sierra canyons, Saline Valley, China Ranch, and Death Valley looking and listening for all the birds they could find. Tradition, and exhaustion, has determined that the countdown (and the best potluck in the Valley) is held the next day. Again, the observers were replying Yes repeatedly and, as the checklist filled up with checks, everybody knew they were a part of something special. At the end of the countdown, the group let out a collective Wow! at the 219 species that were found! From hoping that we could break 200 to blowing right past it was exhilarating for everybody involved. Some had wondered if emphasizing the search for species would lessen the numbers of total individuals. The group found 16,780 individual birds, almost a 50% increase over the previous high of 11,242. This reflects on the wide coverage by a large number of observers on a day that the birds chose to migrate. Biological confluence is beautiful!

Never let it be said that an individual does not make a difference. Of the 219 species, 40 were seen by only one person or group (usually only two people). Chris Howard and Rosie Beach were the only ones to find Cassins Kingbird, Juniper Titmouse, Red Crossbill, and, incredibly, a BLACK-BACKED WAGTAIL, an Asian species new to the County; Jim Parker had American Wigeon, Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches and White-throated Sparrow; Debby Parker found Wilsons Snipe, MEW GULL (which she added to the County list 2 days earlier!) and Black-and-white Warbler; Judy Wickman found an amazing Long-tailed Duck, Coopers Hawk, and Cedar Waxwing; Susan Steele had Mountain Quail, Willow Flycatcher, and Canyon Towhee; Kelli Levinson added Red-breasted Merganser, Cactus Wren, and California Thrasher; Andrew and Leah Kirk found Least Bittern and Black Swift; Derrick Vocelka had Cattle Egret and Sharp-shinned Hawk; Barb Toth found two Evening Grosbeaks; Mike and Nancy Prather added a Whimbrel; Gerry & Vicki Wolfe found a Peregrine Falcon; Sacha Stuart had Ring-necked Pheasant in her yard; Bob Maurer, Jr. added Franklin's Gull; James Wilson had a Lucys Warbler, Tom Heindel found Gambels Quail, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bells Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Summer Tanager; Jo Heindel added Canada Geese (2 adults with 5 goslings), Canvasback, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Calliope Hummingbird. Others who helped count and added substantial numbers were Kathy Duvall, Lee Dykus, Jack and Marilyn Ferrell, Tim Forsell, Carolyn Gann, Betty Gilchrist, John & Ros Gorham, Steve Holland, Bob Hudson, Bill Mitchel, Larry Nahm, Richard Potashin, Beverly Schroeder, Michael Thornton, Bob Toth, Lynna Walker, Drew Wickman, John Williams, James Wilson, and Jerry Zatorski.

Inyo County received national recognition for ranking 3rd in the Nation for total number of species found in a county (or parish) in one day on IMBD. This may be a record that will stand for a long time, on the other hand 

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Those of us who live in the Eastern Sierra are fortunate that we are relatively close to the largest National Park in the contiguous United States. Death Valley National Park offers great opportunities to explore a myriad of habitats that begin with desert scrub below sea level to sub-alpine forests that reach over 11,000 in the Panamint Mountains.

The major attractions are the oases that offer refuge, food, and water to migrants passing north in spring and south in fall. Birds fly for many hours over a sea of creosote or desert scrub that provides little in the way of necessary amenities. As exhaustion sets in, an oasis of tamarisk, willow and cottonwood, grass lawns, or small ponds serves as a magnet offering rest and respite from travel.

The largest oasis in the Park, and most attractive to birds and birders, is Furnace Creek Ranch. This is, for the most part, a private in-holding that was formerly the Greenland Ranch. Today it consists of an 18 hole golf course, motel, inn, various stores, shops, restaurants, post office, palm groves, and stables with horses. Adjacent are a small airport, the Park sewer ponds, gas station, and visitor center with a gift shop and a small museum. All are surrounded by the greenery provided by an abundance of spring fed water from the hills to the east. The golf course is private property, and present management has gone to great lengths to insure that all others, birders included, are aware that only golfers are allowed on the course. We urge you to restrict your birding to the edges of the course and, instead, seek out the other hot spots at the ranch. The lawn and trees near the motel, the corrals, the residence area behind the restaurant, and palmary near the fire station, the picnic area, the visitor center, the road to the airport, the lawn and trees at the post office, the trees near the grocery store, etc. are all proven areas that have produced many remarkable records. The airport sewer ponds are accessible by parking your car in the lot and walking north along the edge of the lot and down a dirt road to the fenced and gated ponds. Ducks and shorebirds, including those chased up by golfers on the course, are the attraction here. Always search the skies for aircraft and be cautious when they are landing or taxiing.

The other smaller oases are Scottys Castle, Mesquite Springs, Stovepipe Wells, Saratoga Spring, and Panamint Springs (another in-holding). All are easily found on a DVNP map or are road signed. Scottys Castle is particularly nice and always cooler than the other, lower sites. The tree-ringed lawn is especially productive as is the picnic area and maintenance area up canyon. There is a small pond right next to the old bridge with large drive through doors that are permanently closed. Mesquite Springs has a nice riparian area at the entrance to the campground that often has a small amount of flowing water. At Stovepipe Wells the dining hall area and isolated trees are sometimes watered, which is where the birds will congregate. A Sabines Gull was photographed enjoying the swimming pool! The sewer ponds have had the vegetation removed, and the dikes are so high that the water is not visible. Birds accessing the water may be found outside the fence, but the ponds are no longer a hot spot. Saratoga Spring is a large series of ponds surrounded with reeds and a trail. Camping is no longer allowed, but birding is, and some remarkable birds have been found there. Panamint Springs is private property, but birders have been allowed limited access. The newly planted campground is particularly attractive, and a walk around the restaurant/store accesses most of the good habitat. Birders have been asked not to bird the trees near the residences behind the motel unit.

While visiting anytime of the year can be productive, the optimal time for vagrants is mid May to early June, and again mid September to mid November. The list of eastern species that have been discovered in the Park is long and glorious and includes Mississippi Kite, Zone-tail Hawk, Smiths Longspur, Purple Gallinule, Spragues and Red-throated Pipits, Tropical Kingbird, Snow Bunting, Varied Bunting, Rufous-backed Robin, Red-necked Grebe. Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Inca Dove. Then there is the colorful list of warblers such as Cape May, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Connecticut, Mourning, Hooded, Canada, and the list goes on and on.

One observer, Guy McCaskie of San Diego and Californias premier birder, has observed over 325 species at Furnace Creek Ranch! Granted that the rest of us probably couldnt see that many there in two lifetimes it is certainly worth the beautiful drive to see what gems we can find. A check of with links to the DV Weather Report, Events, and the Morning Report for road conditions might be helpful.

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