Sign up for our WAVE Newsletter


Back to master list.

Inyo County Bird List Exceeds 29 States! (1/'93)

During 1992 four species of birds were added to the list of birds documented for Inyo County. This brought the total to 397 which exceeds the lists of 29 states!

January ushered in not only the New Year but a new record of a Trumpeter Swan near Tecopa. Photographs and the number off the neckband were obtained by Jan Tarbel.

On March 15th a field excursion attended by members of the California Bird Records Committee documented and photographed the first Wrentit. A pair of birds, usually found in the chaparral, were in upper Sand Canyon at the extreme southwest corner of Inyo County.

On September 13th, Marge Irwin, of Napa, was camped at Lone Pine campground near Witney Portal. She put out a hummingbird feeder, as she always does, and in came a Broad-billed Hummingbird, normally found in Arizona and Mexico. She called other birders and photographs and written descriptions were taken.

On October 16th, Jon Dunn, senior editor of National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America", found a Field Sparrow at Death Valley National Monument. Many observers, some from as far away as Louisiana, came to see and photograph this eastern sparrow.

How does a bird warrant being placed on a county (or state) list? Notice that all four of the above were seen by at least several observers, they were all photographed, and written documentation was provided. While many species of birds are easy to identify, many others are easy to misidentify, and therefore, there is a tremendous need to be very, very careful.

What should you do if you think you have found a rare bird?

It is very rare for a bird to be added to any list if it is seen by a single observer. There are a few exceptions, of course, such as a well photographed and excellently documented bird by a highly experienced observer. If you would like a list of the birds of Inyo County with the rare birds noted, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Tom & Jo Heindel, Box 400, Big Pine, CA 93513.

Return to top

Ornithological History of Inyo (3/'93)

"Hogwash!" declared the chipmunk lady.

"It's true, Enid." reaffirmed Tom.

"I don't believe it!" she said, her blue eyes flashing.

"But Enid, some of the finest scientists of the day were on the expedition and if those birds were here they would have found them."

"They were all around our ranch when I was a child, Tom, and I can't believe that they weren't always in the Owens Valley."

The famous Enid Larson was in an unusual quandary as this new information did not align with what she knew about her beloved valley. The next day at the crack of dawn we heard a rat-tat-tat on the front door. We opened it to see Enid's blue eyes twinkling and her impish smile warning that she was about to reveal another of her wonderful stories. "I was scared to death that I was going to die last night before I solved the magpie problem. If St. Peter had asked me, 'O.K., Enid, what is the full story on the Black-billed Magpie in the Owens Valley?' I would have had to admit that I didn't know and that," she chuckled, "would have killed me! So early this morning I called a really old friend of mine who has lived in the valley longer than I and asked if there had always been magpies in the valley. I was stunned when she said, 'No, Enid. When I was a child there were none until the ranchers started planting locust trees as wind breaks. Then we started seeing the magpies building their big stick basket-nests.' And here I thought they were always in the valley. Now I can answer St. Peter when he asks me!" Luckily for the valley and her friends it was another 20 years before she would have to answer him.

The aforementioned Death Valley Expedition of 1891, led by A. K. Fisher, was the first serious scientific investigation of Inyo county and included many parts of Inyo county besides Death Valley. It is fascinating and frustrating to read the report and see the changes man has caused over the last 100 years. Fulvous Whistling Ducks used to be common at Owens Lake. The only one seen in Inyo since Owens Lake became a shadow of its former glory was at Furnace Creek Ranch on 25 Sep 1973. Bell's Vireos were common along the Owens River and now are completely extirpated from the valley. They never found any Screech Owls, now fairly common, nor the flashy, noisy and now common Black-billed Magpies of the above story.

Twenty years passed before Joseph Grinnell, from the University of California, Berkeley, began a series of annual trips to Death Valley which lasted through the thirties. He surveyed the birds found at or below sea level which in Death Valley is -282'. He commented on birds not found there that he felt "could exist in Death Valley". Two that he mentioned, Lucy's Warbler and Verdin, have since moved in and are now seen regularly in the mesquite where they breed.

Mr. M. French Gilman continued ornithological studies during the thirties while he was chief caretaker at Death Valley. He reported of having Black-billed Magpies daily from Nov 1933 to May 1934. Only a few were reported since then in Death Valley, and those were in the early seventies, with none seen or heard since.

U. C. Berkeley continued its interest in Inyo county during the thirties, forties & fifties but changed the area of study to the Owens Valley and the White Mountains. They sent out Alden Miller whose main purpose was to document the breeding birds but in doing so he found a male Blue-winged Warbler, a vagrant from the east. This was the first record of this species west of the Great Plains.

During the late fifties & sixties Roland Wauer, a naturalist with the US National Park Service, conducted studies of the birds of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains. Along with important breeding information from the Panamints he found a Blackpoll, the first record for California and a Lawrence's Goldfinch, the first record for the Panamints.

The Bureau of Land Management sponsored field work during the seventies which covered the Owens Valley and nearby mountain ranges. They used this work to help them in land use policy decisions.

Dr. Ned K. Johnson, from U. C. Berkeley, began conducting ornithological research in the White & Inyo Mountains in the 80's and continues today. A recent publication of his deals with Sage Sparrows and the two different forms making contact in the Owens Valley.

Other on-going studies are the annual breeding bird surveys conducted by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Almost a dozen of these surveys are run every year in Inyo with Jan Tarble, volunteer extraordinaire of Tecopa, carrying out her surveys for over 20 years. This information, collated nationwide, helps keep a finger on the pulse of avian population dynamics.

One hundred years of research has yielded many answers but as Albert Einstein said, "As the area of light increases so too does the circumference of darkness." As our knowledge expands so too does our ability to ask questions.

Return to top

Birds in Trouble (5/'93)

The State of California and the United States Government try to protect plant and animal species that are in trouble. Species in serious decline may qualify for listing in one of several categories that, hopefully, will lead to their recovery. These are as follows:

SE= State listed as endangered

ST= State listed as threatened

SCE= State candidate as endangered

SCT= State candidate as threatened

FE= Federally listed as endangered

FT= Federally listed as threatened

FPE= Federally proposed as endangered

FPT= Federally proposed as threatened

Of the twenty-eight species of birds currently listed, eleven are found in Inyo County. The BALD EAGLE (SE, FE) is a locally uncommon winter resident of the Owens Valley. They normally arrive in early November and remain until late March. From one to three may be found at Tinemaha Reservoir and up to four have been seen at Haiwee Reservoir. There are no documented records of successful nesting. In March & April 1990 a pair made a nest at Tinemaha but deserted it the last week of April. Habitat destruction and eggshell thinning were the initial causes of the decline of our national emblem but with the protection provided by federal and state governments the eagles are making a comeback.

The SWAINSON'S HAWK (ST) is an uncommon summer visitor. These birds return in early April after an 11,000-17,000 mile trek from their wintering grounds in Argentina. They nest in large trees around ranches and feed primarily on grasshoppers and ground squirrels which are abundant in the nearby fields. They formerly occurred in flocks of hundreds but hunters have taken their toll and a recent flock of thirty-four non-breeding immatures near Big Pine was cause for celebration.

The PEREGRINE FALCON (SE, FE) is a rare transient and very rare summer and winter visitor. Most records are from August to October but there are a few spring records from April to early May. Eggshell thinning, caused by DDT, was the initial cause of their decline. When the chemical companies could no longer sell DDT in the US they shipped it to foreign countries. Those birds which migrate to DDT-using countries are eating poisoned birds and when they return to the US their eggshells are affected and their reproductive rates are low. This has been offset by captive breeding programs but as these are phased out the Peregrine's problem will persist.

The CALIFORNIA BLACK RAIL(ST), the smallest member of the rail family, has been recorded only once in Inyo County at Little Lake early in 1964. Habitat destruction along the coast, the Colorado River & the Salton Sea has seriously reduced its numbers. It is unknown why this bird was so far afield.

The GREATER SANDHILL CRANE (ST) is a rare migrant in fall and a very rare winter visitor and spring migrant. Most records are from mid-October until mid-November with one spring record (14 April 1991 at Tinemaha) and one winter record (winter 1964-1965 at Furnace Creek Ranch). Again, habitat destruction has seriously impacted this long-limbed bird.

There are six records for the tiny CALIFORNIA LEAST TERN (SE, FE) in Inyo County. All are from late May to early June and all but two are from Tecopa and Furnace Creek Ranch. The two exceptions were seen at Owens Lake. Habitat destruction along the California coast has ruined most of their nesting areas. Their salvation is coming slowly by fencing in certain colonies to prevent accidental egg crushing by beach-goers and purposeful destruction by pets allowed to run loose.

The WESTERN YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (SE) is a rare transient and probable breeder in Inyo County. They return from Central and South America in late May and early June and normally depart by the first week of September. These shy and reclusive birds are most commonly observed near Tecopa, Furnace Creek Ranch, Lone Pine and Big Pine where they have been observed courting and carrying twigs. The cuckoo requires a certain amount of riparian habitat and as that is destroyed reproduction becomes impossible.

The WILLOW FLYCATCHER (SE) is a fairly common spring and fall migrant but very rare (and probably extirpated) as a breeder in our area. They arrive in mid-May and depart by early September. This small bird was once common but nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds has all but eliminated it from breeding in many areas.

The BANK SWALLOW (ST) is a fairly common migrant and a rare, local summer breeder. Migrants pass through during April and May and again in August and September. In 1891, A. K. Fisher listed it as a common breeder in the Owens Valley. In 1992 the only known breeding colony in Inyo was destroyed by workers at a local gravel pit.

The LEAST BELL'S VIREO (SE, FE) was formerly a fairly common breeder along the Owens River. Now it is a rare and local summer resident known only from Tecopa and Furnace Creek Ranch. The main threat to this tiny gray bird is nest parasitism of the Brown-headed Cowbird who chooses to let others raise its young.

The INYO CALIFORNIA TOWHEE (SE, FT) is a very local resident of the southeast Argus Mountains with a total population of around 100 individuals. The main threats are from mining activities, feral burros, off-road vehicles and riparian destruction. With a population this small the edge of extinction is a hair's breadth away.

Return to top

Breeding Birds Of Inyo County, 1993: Highlights (9/'93)

This recently passed breeding season has been very successful for the birds of Inyo County. This success can probably be attributed to the heavy rainfall of the past winter and spring and its positive effect on the vegetation.

Of the dozen or so breeding surveys conducted in the county for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each year, the majority established records for most species and most individuals ever recorded.

Some species that normally nest at higher elevations such as Sage Thrasher were able to take advantage of the lush vegetation and nest on the floor of the Owens Valley.

Andrew Kirk of Independence continued his three year study of Least Bittern nests at Billy Lake and was able to locate and study seven different nests producing at least eleven young.

Wood Ducks once again this summer nested in the Bishop area and successfully fledged many young.

Osprey did not do well. While in past years they were able to raise young at Tinemaha Reservoir, this summer the parents, for unknown reasons, deserted their nest on 29 June.

Swainson's Hawks had a successful nesting season in the Owens Valley and at Deep Springs.

An unbanded adult Peregrine Falcon was found at Cottonwood Marsh, on Owens Lake, on 22 June. This is an endangered species and one wonders if wild birds could be breeding locally.

Dr. Steve Laymon, Research Director of the Kern Preserve and his staff spent weeks working the Owens Valley under contract with CA Dept. of Fish & Game. They discovered mated pairs of Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Willow Flycatchers, both state endangered birds, at various locations throughout the valley.

Burrowing Owls have become increasingly rare for the last two decades. Two family groups were located this summer. One near Ballarat in Panamint Valley found by Denise Racine of CA Dept. of Fish & Game, and another east of the Last Chance Range.

Long-eared Owls and Saw-whet Owls were plentiful and many juvenile Long-eareds were found throughout the county.

Richard Webster, of San Diego, located large numbers of Lesser Nighthawks with 100 at Cartago and 75 near Bishop being all-time records. He also discovered nesting Williamson's Sapsuckers in the Inyo Mountains the first time reported away from the Sierra Nevada.

Bank Swallows once again returned to attempt nesting at various gravel pits in the Bishop area. This was good news for this state threatened bird.

Western Bluebirds were found nesting in the Panamint Mountains in pinon forest near Mahogany Flats and confirms Ro Wauer's reports of 1964.

American Pipits were discovered by Richard Webster during late June on top of Telescope Peak. They were previously unknown in the mountain range. Richard also discovered Bell's Vireo on territory near Scotty's Castle. Jan Tarble also had several pairs of this endangered species near Tecopa.

A Red-eyed Vireo near Big Pine in early July was trying to find a mate. This bird is normally found in the eastern U.S. The same is true for a Magnolia Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler, found by Webster, on territory during mid-July in Wyman Canyon.

Yellow-breasted Chats, species of special concern to the state, were on territory at Tecopa, Furnace Creek Ranch, near Lone Pine, Big Pine, and Wyman Canyon and brought off many young.

Summer Tanagers and Indigo Buntings again spent the summer near Big Pine brightening up the breeding season.

Return to top

Opening a Restaurant for Birds (11/'93)

To feed or not to feed is a question that has many "experts" on both sides of the argument. The purpose of this article is not to sway you one way or the other but to answer the questions that are asked by those who choose to feed birds.

SEED feeding can be done all year but the most important time is during the winter as other natural supplies become scarce. Any seed mix you choose will attract many different kinds of customers to your restaurant. The same seed mix can attract different birds depending on the feeding container you use. Hanging houses or tube feeders will attract House Finches and Red-winged Blackbirds but if you want White-crowned Sparrows the food needs to be on a tray, or better yet on the ground next to a pile of prunings or bushes where they can scurry to safety. If snow covers the ground, then scrape an area clear under a tree or along the side of your house and place more than your usual amount as cold rapidly depletes their energy stores. Another way to provide seeds is to plant a variety of seed producing plants that will offer a wider range to your menu than store bought seeds and be far cheaper and prettier. Some annuals to consider are bachelor button, calendula, cosmos, marigolds, pinks, and zinnia. Some perennials they enjoy are aster, black-eyed susan, goldenrod, coneflower and sunflower. Regular birds you can expect to see are Brewer's Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Crows & Ravens, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and sadly, too many Brown-headed Cowbirds. Some not as common are Evening Grosbeaks, Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, Rufous-sided Towhees and Clark's Nutcrackers.

NECTAR feeding attracts hummingbirds, orioles, ants and bees! While working at a hummingbird sanctuary in southern CA we learned from the many experiments that were conducted. Mix 4 parts of water to 1 part of sugar during the summer months. Make it richer (3 to 1) during the spring and fall migration as they can use this extra boost during their energy sapping flight period. Boil for 5 minutes, cool, fill feeders and hang in the shade. Neither honey nor red food dye should be used, as they can be harmful. The feeders all have red plastic parts and if you want more red, tie a red ribbon or put red paper around the bottle. Many find it amazing that nectar isn't the main food of hummers. Insects are. Their diet is 50-90% insects and if you watch hummers coming to your feeder you'll often see them "flycatching" small flying insects. Hummers begin to arrive in March so we put the feeders out mid-February to help along any avant garde. The first you'll see will probably be Rufous followed in a couple of weeks by Black-chinned. Anna's, Costa's, and Calliope may also drop in but not regularly. During the summer the Black-chinned is the hummer that breeds in the towns and is the expected one at feeders. Most of the hummers depart in September but the hardy Anna's remains for a couple more months and possibly longer. Some spend the winter just south of the Inyo border and a few might remain if there was a food supply. Some argue that leaving the feeders out delays their natural departure date, but their urge to migrate is governed by far more than if the feeders are out, and besides, it takes less than one day to fly to Ridgecrest. Hooded Orioles and Northern (Bullock's) Orioles arrive the end of March and will put on a colorful display defending "their" feeder. Some problems can occur. Ants are easily discouraged by putting petroleum jelly on the hanger, and bees are stopped by a guard on each feeder port. If the syrup turns cloudy, replace it. If you keep the feeder out in fall and winter there are three ways to prevent freezing: take the feeder in the house each evening and replace it early the next morning; hang it against a warm, sheltered, south facing side of your house; place a heat lamp near the feeder and turn it on each evening and off in the morning. To stop wind from juggling the feeder and dumping the syrup all over the ground, weight the feeder down with bean bags hanging on a long cord. If you have only one feeder out you will probably only get 1 or 2 hummers as they are very territorial and vociferously chase off all intruders. It is better to have 2 or more and place them widely apart so the alpha male can't dominate your yard. A natural way to attract hummers is to plant nectar producing flowers (red and purple varieties) such as penstemon, salvia, honeysuckle & trumpet vine.

FRUIT is an attractive addition especially during spring migration which begins in March. Slices of bananas and half an orange impaled on a tray or post will pull in colorful orioles and tanagers. During fall migration the profusion of fruit trees and ripening fruit makes supplemental feeding unnecessary.

BERRIES are a boon to fall migrants and fancy up a yard turning barren and brown in winter. Among the many choices: Pyracantha (Firethorn), Elderberry, Virginia Creeper, Rose, Blackberry, Raspberry.

SUET is placed in a wire container or string bag and hung from a tree, or placed under a wire cover on a tray. It turns rancid above 70ø F so don't put it out until after the high temperatures are below that. You can buy it at the local markets for about 10› a pound. It freezes well and one chunk at a time can be taken out as needed.

PEANUT BUTTER LOGS are offered at only the finest restaurants. Put an eye screw into the top of a 1-2' long 2-3" diameter branch and drill out a series of holes. Fill the holes with peanut butter, with or without raisins, and hang up. If you put this on your menu start with only a couple of holes filled until the birds find it then increase the amount to meet your customers' demand. Both suet and the logs can attract Magpies, Common (Red-shafted) Flicker, Hairy, Downy & Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Steller's Jays, Mountain Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, other mountain birds pushed out by the snows, and perhaps a surprise or two.

WATER is incredibly important especially in winter. Since water will freeze in a small bird bath or pond, a water heater is mandatory to keep some water free for the birds.

If you plan on attracting birds to your yard to feed be aware that you will be, by necessity, a non-discriminatory restaurant. If you put out food for birds who eat seeds, fruit, berries, etc. then you will also be supplying birds, indirectly albeit, for those who eat birds. Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, as well as cats, know who feeds and who doesn't and if you do they will become regular customers at your place. About once or twice a year we see a kill in our yard. But meanwhile we've provided food, water, resting & nesting places for thousands of birds and so helped, in our minds, to offset in a very small way, the huge reduction of habitat these friends have suffered.

Return to top