2007 Birding Articles by Tom and Jo Heindel

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Jan/Feb 2007: Fall 2006 Yielded a Bountiful Avian Harvest

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 3, Jan-Feb 2007 - click here for original with photos]

While the glorious fall colors took away peoples breath, the amazing parade of rare bird species that graced Inyo County this Fall made birders breathless as they ran or drove from one to the other. Seven species found are so rare in the State that all the pictures and documentation observers submitted are on their way to the California Bird Records Committee for review. Only the 2nd Inyo record of a Wood Thrush occurred 27 Aug when Bill Deppe found one at Crystal Spring, just southeast of China Ranch in the corner of Inyo county. It lost its tail and had to remain until it molted a new one before departing. It was last seen 10 Oct by Guy McCaskie. A Common Grackle, very uncommon in the West, made a brief and memorable stop in Tom & Jo Heindels backyard on 31 Aug. These two excellent birds were forecasting a fabulous Fall but not until hindsight focused were they recognized as harbingers of a Fall to remember.

A Harris's Hawk, usually seen in Mexico and southern AZ, NM, and TX, was found 25 Sep on Sunland Indian Reservation Road by Douglas Dunaway. Sadly, the bird had a band on its left leg indicating that it was a captive bird and will not be accepted as naturally occurring here. What a tale it could tell regarding how it got to Bishop! An Upland Sandpiper was found near Bishop by Carolyn Gann and Larry Nahm on 1 Oct just southeast of the sewer ponds. They did everything right by calling all the local birders and writing their descriptions before looking in a book. There are 6 records for Inyo but all are in spring. If accepted by the Committee it will be the first fall record for Inyo. What is fascinating about this record is that the State has only one record after Sep, a late Oct bird, so this shines a little more light on the timing of the Upland movement. The very next day, 2 Oct, Justin Hite saw a strange small bird poking in the leaf litter at Scottys Castle, DVNP. The bird teased him with bits and pieces but Justin finally got the look he needed of this walking, yellow and olive, ground-loving warblera Connecticut Warbler! There are only three Inyo records, all on 22 Sep in different years! While the State has almost 90 records they are predominantly from the coast and Southeast Farallon Island with only a few inland records in Inyo and Kern Counties. Less than two weeks later, 13 Oct, Jim Pike found a Yellow-throated Vireo at China Ranch. There were six previous Inyo records but only one was in fall , also on 13 Oct but in 1990 so it wasnt the same bird! On 21 Oct, Bob and Susan Steele found a male Rusty Blackbird at Furnace Creek Ranch. There are 55 Inyo records, all in fall, but declining occurrence nationwide since the late 1980s has resulted in this species being put back on the State Review List.

Those seven species were the rarest of the rare but the list of other rare, but not quite rare enough to require State review was amazing. Vagrants, species whose normal breeding or migratory routes do not include the Eastern Sierra, were out in force. To appreciate the bequest, curl up with your bird book and look at the range maps of the following species: Surf Scoter, Barrows Goldeneye, Sandhill Crane, White-winged Dove, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Least Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, Bobolink, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, and Lawrences Goldfinch. All were photographed or very well documented for Inyo County from 1 August through 30 November 2006. This year both plants and birds provided a spectacularly colorful Fall in the Eastern Sierra. How lucky we are to be their beneficiaries!

Mar/Apr 2007: A Blue Winter

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2007 - click here for original with photos]

This was the winter that the Bluebirds of Happiness chose to dazzle all of us with their electric company. This small bird, so intensely blue it catches your breath when sunlight hits it, made an otherwise drab season memorable for their sojourn. They were seen rising from fence posts, flying into the wind, and hovering with a motionless body attached to blurring wings. Just as cameras were focused, they dove to the ground for insects only they could see before returning to the post where they cocked their heads left and right before diving to the ground again. When they had enough protein they would flock to the pyracantha berries for dessert. Dozens were seen in green and red hedges that turned green over the weeks as the berries disappeared. There are other blue-colored birds in the eastern Sierra (jays, buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks) but they are not bluebirds with a capital B.

There are three species of bluebirds in North America with two found in California. The Western Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird are both found in the eastern Sierra and this was the Mountain Bluebird winter. When the cold descends most Mountain Bluebirds withdraw to the southwest tier of states where snow-free land allows them to feed on insects and berries. This Nevada state bird spends the summer raising young in most of the mountain ranges in Inyo County. Some winters very few birds are seen in Inyo although typically numbers begin to show up in late winter or early spring as birds that wintered to the south begin their return route to northern U.S. and Canada into Alaska. It is a mystery whether our wintering birds are from the northern reaches or our local mountains or a mixture of both. They are seen all months of the year but are on the valley floor only from October to March.

The Western Bluebird is also electric blue but the breast and upper back are orange. The females of both species are faded copies of the males. The Western Bluebird is much less common than the Mountain Bluebird in the eastern Sierra. In summer the Western Bluebird is found in the Far West from Mexico to southern British Columbia. The only known breeding locations in Inyo County are mature pinyon-junipers of the Panamint Mountains and a few low elevations along the east face of the Sierra Nevada such as Grays Meadow and Seven Pines. While a few are reported some winters from Round Valley and Owens Valley a reliable winter area is from Shoshone to China Ranch in southeast Inyo County.

William Leon Dawson, the original Birds of California author, reveals to mere mortals the magic of a Mountain Bluebird thusly: Gentle and demure, as well as brave and high-spirited, is this sky-born thoroughbred of the Sierras, this bit of heavens own blue incarnate.

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May/June 2007: China Ranch: An Emerald Isle

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 5, May-Jun 2007 - click here for original with photos]

One of the most beautiful jewels in Inyo Countys crown is China Ranch, a hidden oasis in the southeast corner of the county near Tecopa and the Amargosa Canyon. The privately owned date farm shares China Ranch Wash with Willow Creek and is an emerald of Fremont cottonwoods, tree and streamside willows, honey and screwbean mesquite, and date palms surrounded by the Mojave Desert. The owners, Brian and Bonnie Brown, have developed the land both as a commercial property and a unique natural history preserve. Interpretive signs explain the history of the canyon and farm and provide information on dates they grow. The Browns encourage everyone who enjoys the outdoors to come to China Ranch; long and short-term scientific studies are welcome. They ask that they be copied on any data collected for their archive. This will allow them to gain a better understanding of the complexity of the biosystem they have chosen to protect and allow them to provide additional information to visitors and researchers.

From a birders perspective, this is a stunning location with a wonderful collection of birds. China Ranch hosts a suite of regular breeders whose range just barely reaches the southeast corner of Inyo County. Least Bells Vireo, an endangered species, still breeds there as well as nearby Amargosa Canyon, West Talc Road and several other nearby locations. While there are isolated reports of non-breeders to the Owens Valley, one should plan a visit to the Ranch between April and early September to see this plain plumaged but personality packed species. The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is a permanent resident and hides in the mesquite thickets. The Crissal Thrasher sings from the top of trees and shrubs in early spring when easy to see. Later they are seen scooting across the trails or roads disappearing in the dense understory. The Brown-crested Flycatcher is sometimes reported to Owens Valley as a vagrant but is a regular breeder, usually seen in the cottonwoods and willows. The Summer Tanager is another species that is widely reported over the county as a vagrant but is a regular summer visitor to China Ranch. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo has also been found with some regularity in the riparian of China Ranch between June and September. Other widespread species are easily found at China Ranch, such as Gambels

Quail, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Phainopepla, and Lucys Warbler. Then there are the vagrants that are unexpected anywhere in the county that have been found at China Ranch: White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Gray Catbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Hooded Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Le Contes Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Bronzed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, and Purple Finch. And this list was garnered with minimal coverage by birders!

Trails reveal the ridges and recesses of the farm and signs explain much of what you will see on trails from a couple hundred yards to four miles long. After a hike, treat yourself to the gift shop where dates, date bread, and the famous date shakes can be purchased. Tables and chairs are just outside where one can enjoy the hummingbirds and orioles that visit the nectar feeders April to September. A B&B is available for those who wish to enjoy China Ranch for longer than a day. This precious gem is priceless and guaranteed to take your breath away!  Website: www.chinaranch.com.

Sept/Oct 2007: Least Terns visit Inyo County this Summer

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 26, No. 1, Sept-Oct 2007 - click here for original with photos]

Least Tern, Adult, Photo by Tom Heindel

Least Tern, Adult, Photo by Tom Heindel

The Least Tern, all nine inches of it, is the smallest tern found in the U.S. It is a neotropical migrant that winters in Central and South America and in the far West summers along the coastal beaches and sandbars north to central California. While it is found inland as a regular but rare spring and summer visitor at the Salton Sea and along the Colorado River, it had been found in Inyo County only eleven times. Because this species utilizes the same beaches that man and accompanying dogs, cats, and rats do, the conflict has reduced the numbers to such seriously low levels that it has been given Endangered status in an effort to save it from extinction.

On 12 June 2007 Mike and Joy Bowen, visiting birders from New Jersey, stopped at Klondike Lake to add more western species to their trip list. To their surprise they found the twelfth county record of Least Tern and recognizing that this coastal species was probably unexpected here, photographed it and notified local birders. The observation was immediately posted on the Eastern Sierra Birds website and other birders came to see and photograph this wayward migrant.

Least Tern, Immature, Photo by Tom Heindel

Least Tern, Immature, Photo by Tom Heindel

On 18 August 2007 Tom Heindel found and photographed a first summer (one-year-old) Least Tern, again at Klondike Lake, for the thirteenth Inyo County record. This very late bird is two months outside the known temporal distribution in the Eastern Sierra. Kern Countys spring window is 12 May to 23 June, all adults, while in Mono County there is only one record of two adults in early July.

Of the first twelve Inyo County records all are in spring from 19 May (2002 at Furnace Creek Ranch) to 16 June (2005 at Tinemaha Reservoir). This nicely frames the Bowen find and reflects passage of birds returning north in spring. All were adult birds except the June and August birds that were first summer birds. All records are single birds except when two were found 31 May 1987 at Tecopa. In the last decade, with greater coverage than in the past, Least Tern has been documented just five times. This is not an expected species in the Eastern Sierra and any observer who finds one needs to follow the protocol to prove their claim and add a significant record to the ornithological history of the county.

Nov/Dec 2007: A History of Verdin in Inyo County

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 26, No. 2, Nov-Dec 2007 - click here for original with photos]

This small, charistmatic, gray desert bird is North Americas only representative of the Remizidae, a family of tits found throughout the world. The yellow head, chestnut shoulder patch and distinctive three-note vocalization makes this an obvious species of the drier deserts from Texas to southeastern California. Both sexes build volleyball-sized and shaped nests in mesquite trees and other thorny trees and shrubs, some used for roosting and others for nesting. These nests are often the first indication that you are in Verdin territory.

The Death Valley Expedition of 1891 recorded the first Verdins for Inyo County when Mr. Frank Stephens collected a male at Resting Springs 13 February 1891. This small location is a few miles north of the San Bernardino line and a few miles west of the Nevada line.

In 1917, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley began a project to document the vertebrates of Inyo County. Tracy I. Storer, a respected zoologist, spent part of February collecting data at Shoshone, just 15 miles northwest of Resting Springs. He found no Verdins and no nests, indicating that they had not moved beyond the original site. In April and May, Dr. Joseph Grinnell, the dean of California ornithology, surveyed birds at Furnace Creek Ranch. He found no nests and heard no vocalizations during a time when they are extremely vocal while setting up their breeding territories.


Verdin, Photo by Jo Heindel

In April 1920, Grinnell returned to the ranch, then called Greenland Ranch, for further bird research and found no Verdins.

No further work was done there until October 1933 when Grinnell returned to continue his studies and found that during the interim Verdins had colonized Furnace Creek Ranch. M. French Gilman, a maintenance supervisor and knowledgeable birder at the ranch, told Grinnell that there were Verdin nests at Shoshone as well.

The species continued at Furnace Creek Ranch and was reported again in 1961 and through the 1970s and 1980s. During this time reports came from Mesquite Springs and Scottys Castle, north of the ranch, and breeding is regularly documented there to the present time. They moved west to Emigrant Ranger Station, Darwin Falls, Haiwee Reservoir, Little Lake and a few canyons on the southeast slope of the Sierra Nevada (e.g. Nine-mile and Sand Canyons).

Other species have forged into new breeding areas only to withdraw after a few decades or longer. It remains to be seen if this species can endure in the newly colonized areas, and what motivated this range expansion awaits answers from a future scholar.

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