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Inyo County is Hawk Heaven (1/'94)

Inyo county is an excellent place to observe diurnal raptors, a group loosely referred to as hawks. Twenty species have been reliably recorded for the county. A few others have been reported but lack the strict documentation required for a first county record.

The accompanying graph shows the relative abundance and calendrical distribution of each raptor. You can easily distinguish the permanent resident (found here all year) from the migrant (passes through in spring and fall), and the summer resident (arrives to breed then departs) from the winter resident (arrives from breeding grounds to winter here then departs). And there are a few that have just wandered here from their normal range to the south or east and defy classification. Common is used to show that if you spent a full day looking for that bird in proper habitat you would find a good number. Fairly common means that a full day in the Owens Valley should yield one to a few. Uncommon means that even with a full day you might not find any as they occur in such low numbers. A rare raptor is one that isn't seen every year.

Many may think of the Turkey Vulture as a hawk but it is not. Hawks normally capture live prey but the Turkey Vulture is a carrion feeder with relatively weak feet and bill compared to hawks. Very rare in winter, the Turkey Vulture returns from the south in mid-March and is common until early October. It surely nests but hard evidence is lacking.

The fairly common OSPREY returns in mid-March and remains until October. During the 1970s nest platforms were erected at Tinnemaha Reservoir and these summer residents bred there. These platforms have deteriorated or have blown over and this has adversely affected nesting success. In 1990 3 pairs nested, fledging six young, but the past 2 years no young have fledged from the single pair that keeps trying.

Two species of KITES have wandered to our area. The Black-shouldered Kite (synonymous with White-tailed Kite) has been recorded about eight times while the Mississippi Kite, interestingly enough, has been recorded a dozen times. The Black-shouldered Kite records were all from the Owens Valley except the one seen in the White Mountains and all the Mississippi Kite sightings were at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley except the one found at Olancha.

The uncommon BALD EAGLE is a winter resident best found at Tinnemaha and Haiwee Reservoirs. In 1990 a pair tried to nest at Tinnemaha but after a month of incubating deserted the nest.

The NORTHERN HARRIER is a fairly common permanent resident usually seen flashing its white rump while flying low over wet marshy areas throughout the county.

Three hawks are considered ACCIPITERS or bird-eating hawks. These are the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk and Goshawk. The Sharp-shinned and Goshawk nest in the coniferous forests of our mountains while the Cooper's nests in riparian areas at lower elevations. All may be seen at lower elevations during migration or in winter. If you put out food for birds there is an excellent chance that the fairly common Sharp-shinned or uncommon Cooper's Hawk will pay an unexpected visit trying to snag an unwary blackbird or sparrow. On the other hand the Goshawk is a very rarely seen bird and not expected in towns.

The largest group of hawks are the BUTEOS or large, soaring hawks. Seven have been recorded in Inyo County. The Red-shouldered Hawk is a usually uncommon permanent resident but is scarcely seen in summer. In 1992, Andrew Kirk, of Independence, found them nesting in Lone Pine for the first nesting record for Inyo. The Broad-winged Hawk is a rare wanderer from the east with about a dozen records usually in spring and fall. The Swainson's Hawk is a fairly common summer resident that winters in Argentina. Many of the ranches have a nest of this species high in a cottonwood from where the hawks can view the careless ground squirrel or other food item. The Zone-tailed Hawk is a rare wanderer from Arizona and Mexico. There are three records of this Turkey Vulture look-alike (but with black & white banded tail). The one seen in Big Pine in August 1972 is the northernmost record ever. The Red-tailed Hawk is our most common Buteo. It is a fairly common permanent resident but more common in winter when birds that bred to the north move in to spend the winter here. A rare and beautiful albino female has lived and bred with normal colored males at the Rossi ranch, just south of Bishop, for a dozen years. The Ferruginous Hawk is a fairly common winter resident that breeds to the northeast of Inyo. They have become fairly common and can be seen perching on telephone poles or out in alfalfa fields. The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the high Arctic and is erratic in its winter appearance here; sometimes fairly common, sometimes almost absent. The Golden Eagle is an uncommon permanent resident that is usually seen singly but sometimes can be seen hunting cooperatively in pairs. This is an exciting scene to watch where the lead eagle often walks on the ground stomping into each bush while the second quietly holds its place in the air just above the bush waiting for something to be spooked out then wham!

Last are the always impressive FALCONS. Of the four species found in Inyo the smallest is the American Kestrel (synonymous with Sparrow Hawk). It is a fairly common permanent resident that makes itself at home in towns and ranches feeding on insects, lizards and small rodents. The Merlin is an uncommon migrant and winter visitor. Like the Kestrel it is a small falcon but with a bad attitude! When not feeding on birds, rodents and insects it takes pleasure in harassing anything, anywhere, anytime. The premier falcon, the Peregrine, is an endangered species and a rare migrant through our area. Because of the release of birds at Crowley Lake from the Peregrine breeding program at U C Santa Cruz there are more sightings being reported. The falcon with dirty armpits is the Prairie Falcon, a fairly common permanent resident. Its numbers are augmented in winter by birds that move south from their more northerly breeding areas. This pale sandy brown falcon will usually be seen almost blending in with the top of a telephone pole.

The importance of all these raptors can not be overstated. If their numbers decrease for any reason we would soon find ourselves knee-deep in rodents, insects and disease.

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The Brown-headed Cowbird: A Success Story? (3/'94)

Once upon a time, long, long ago, bison herds roamed the central plains accompanied by the small, drab buffalo-bird. This black and brown bird walked and hopped between the legs of the behemoth bovines capturing insects disturbed by the hooves churning up the rich soil and grasses. This remarkable bird evolved from nest-building ancestors in South America to a nest parasite that dumps its parental responsibilities into the nests of others throughout North America.

The theories for this transition are many but the fact is this creative creature was able to stay, year around, with the far-ranging herd that indirectly provided a smorgasbord of grain, weed seeds, berries and insects. The cost was the abrogation of parental responsibilities: nest-building, incubation, feeding young, and education of fledglings. The host species for the most part were sparrows whose nests were hidden in the very clumps of grasses and flowers on which the bison were stomping and grazing. Over eons of time the sparrows developed methods for coping, and the cowbirds' numbers failed to swell beyond that which they could handle.

The female cowbird produces about 25 eggs per year, far more than most other passerines, and are incubated for about 11 days, far shorter than most other passerines. The female carefully times her laying so that the baby cowbird usually hatches a day or two earlier than do the host species young. Another genetic defense is that the new cowbird doubles its weight in the first 24 hours and then, incredibly, doubles it again in the second 24 hours. This rapid growth rate doesn't continue but the combination of earlier hatching and rapid growth rate produces a baby bird with a huge mouth that is closest to the "parents'" food-filled beak. This puts the rest of the young at a serious and usually fatal disadvantage.

As pioneers settled the West, bringing their cattle and horses with them, the buffalo-bird found new providers whose range was far smaller than bison. The numbers of buffalo/cow-birds increased with the increase in livestock, and, as pioneers settled areas not inhabited by bison, the buffalo/cow-bird became distributed from coast to coast. When the railroads plunged across the plains, helping in the almost total extermination of the bison, the final transition took place. This ever-adaptive bird switched its allegiance to domestic cattle and horses and became the cowbird we know today.

While some birds are able to thwart cowbirds, the large majority have developed no coping skills and usually raise the cowbird young at the expense of their own. Over 216 species have been documented as cowbird hosts. Most of the victims are in four families: vireos, warblers, tyrant flycatchers & finches. The cowbird has reduced the population of eastern woodland birds by half; entire species have disappeared in some areas. The Kirtland's Warbler, found in Michigan, was down to 201 singing males in June 1971. An intensive cowbird trapping program was begun and almost immediately the decline was reversed. The end of summer 1975 saw the total population up to 1200 birds and as the trapping has continued so has the recovery of the Kirtland's Warbler.

Inyo County's earliest cowbird record occurred in 1891 when the A. K. Fisher Expedition collected a male at Furnace Creek Ranch in what is now Death Valley National Monument. They have had a steady success story since then, but it's been at the expense of millions of songbirds. Western Wood Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Warbling Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and many others, have suffered declines in Inyo but none as pernicious as the Bell's Vireo. Up through the seventies a few could still be heard "cheedle chee"ing in the riparian habitat along the Owens River, but their beautiful song is heard there no more.

The placement of pack stations in our mountains is devastating to forest dwelling birds. The corrals and nearby meadows provide sustenance for the cowbirds, while the forest provides all the nests the cowbirds can fill.

Stephen A. Laymon, Research Director of the Kern River Research Center, tells of work by John & Jane Griffith who have been working on a cowbird control project. Their data for the past 10 years showed that Bell's Vireos increased from 20 to 250 pairs, populations of Willow Flycatcher, Wilson's Warbler and Warbling Vireo have become re-established and Yellow Warblers have become much more common. These studies and others underway show the efficacy of cowbird control. Laymon also reported on a residence in Kern County that had 50 cowbirds seen together in one winter. When a cowbird trap was set, over 200 were caught! If half of these trapped birds were female, and they each laid 25 eggs, then, in one year, 2500 cowbirds could have been raised instead of vireos, warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, sparrows, grosbeaks, gnatcatchers, etc. In Big Pine 80 cowbirds were seen together last winter. How many could be trapped there?

This is not a fairy tale because not everybody lives happily ever after. Only the cowbird is happy in this story. Is this a case of being too successful? Whose nest will the cowbird use when all the songbirds are gone? Or will it meet the same end that it brought on others. This is not evolution gone berserk. It shows the negative impact man can have by unwittingly insuring the success of one species over others. If there is to be a happy ending to this saga it will happen only if the animal responsible for the spread of the Brown-headed Cowbird accepts responsibility for its control, not its eradication, just its control.

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Hummingbirds of Inyo County (5/'94)

Eight species of hummingbirds have been reliably recorded from Inyo County. Two of these have been documented once each and thus are not be expected on a regular basis.

The only record of a Broad-billed Hummingbird was an immature male that came to a feeder put out by Marge Irwin at Lone Pine campground 12-14 September 1992. This species is usually found in southeast Arizona and Mexico. The bird was photographed and the record was recently accepted by the California Bird Records Committee, the official body that accepts or rejects reports of rare birds found in California.

The other very rare hummingbird was an immature male Allen's Hummingbird found in the bird collection at the museum of Death Valley National Monument. Even though this is the only proven occurrence it is probable that this species occurs in the county on a somewhat regular basis but in very small numbers. The main problem is identifying this species correctly. It may be almost indentical in non-adult male plumages to non-adult male Rufous Hummingbirds which are common at times. The Allen's is a summer resident along the entire coast of California and a few birds could pass through during migration though we would not consider Inyo County part of their normal route.

The most common hummingbird in the Owens Valley is the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Extremely rare anywhere in the state in winter (there are only a few records) this species returns from Mexico in early April. The earliest arrival record is 24 March 1974 in Big Pine. This bird is especially significant because the oldest record of any bird in Inyo County is of this species observed by a member of a railroad expedition in Big Pine in 1857! If you have a hummingbird feeder out through the summer in the Owens Valley, this is your number one customer. They have raised young in our yard, and nest in all the towns of the valley. They also occupy watered canyons all around the county. By late August the adult males depart for Mexico, followed in September by the adult females and the young of the year. The latest departure record is 30 September 1993 near Big Pine.

The Anna's Hummingbird is an uncommon species most often observed in the southern part of Inyo County. It has nested in the Panamint Mountains and probably other lower mountain canyons as well, though further documentation is needed. It is most often found in lower canyons (below 5000') and around towns. It is our hardiest hummer and has been recorded from February to November. Most records are from July to October and may represent birds that have wandered here after breeding in other regions. The earliest record is from Sand Canyon, southernmost Sierra canyon, on 21 February 1991. The latest was a bird that lingered at Paula Aubin's feeder at Wilkerson until 24 November 1992. This species has wintered as close as Ridgecrest and has been recorded on their National Audubon Society Christmas Counts. The first record of this bird in Inyo was by L. M. Huey at Hanaupah Canyon in the Panamints on 25 April 1922.

The Costa's Hummingbird is also a very common breeder throughout the drier parts of the county. It may also be found in canyons and towns during migration. It normally returns to Inyo during February or March, though there is a record of one at Death Valley on 20 January. Nests and eggs have been collected by various museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. These birds usually depart for Mexico by August but one lingered in Big Pine until 9 December 1993. The first Inyo County record was at Resting Springs by the Death Valley Expedition on 13 February 1891.

The Calliope Hummingbird, smallest of the small in North America, breeds in the local mountains. Normally they return in early April but the earliest one showed up in Big Pine on 26 March 1993. The latest fall bird was found by Floyd Bero of Bishop on 20 September 1992 at Table Mountain campground, southwest of Bishop. The earliest historical record was published in 1881 of a nest with eggs found by W. J. Hoffman in Owens Valley.

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are fairly common in the White and Inyo Mountains east through the Great Basin ranges. They are rare in the Owens Valley and the Sierra. These birds return from their wintering range in southern Mexico by early May though the avant garde are seen in late April. One report in the scientific literature at Tollhouse Spring in the White Mountains on 21 March 1984 was either a case of mistaken identification or a very exceptional bird. Wyman Canyon is an excellent place to see this species. The latest fall sighting was at Hunter Mountain Spring on 24 August 1993. The first record for the county was in Mazourka Canyon on 24 May 1912 when one was found by Harry Swarth from the University of California at Berkeley.

The Rufous Hummingbird is a migrant through Inyo in spring and fall. It was first encountered by the Death Valley Expedition on 18 August 1891 at Kearsarge Pass. Our birds normally begin their spring passage in late March but the earliest record is 12 March 1990 at Big Pine. By early May all have passed to the north with some going all the way to Alaska! The latest spring lingerer was 12 May 1991 in Big Pine. The first birds returning south arrive as early as 24 June but the bulk of fall passage is mid July to mid September. The latest bird was seen on 30 September 1993.

Hummingbird feeders were discussed in an earlier edition of THE WAVE but a few reminders may be in order. During migration we increase water to sugar ratio from 4:1 to 3:1. We boil it and if we expect a freeze at night we keep a heat lamp on it. Remember the birds begin feeding at the first minutes of dawn and may perish if they are unable to locate food very early in the morning. Some species return from Mexico early in the year so feeders should be available by mid-March. Many people feel that by leaving feeders up they may tempt hummers to linger and perhaps ultimately perish from the cold. Because hummers rely heavily on insects they move south when insect numbers dimish. Remember too, some hummers winter as close as Ridgecrest. At 30 MPH how long would it take a hummer in Bishop to get there?

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Inyo's Owls (9/'94)

Owls! Can there be any group of birds more fascinating than these mostly nocturnal, secretive species? Inyo County is host to nine different kinds of owls. They are found from below sea level in our driest deserts to over 10,000' in our most dense forests.

The BARN OWL is a fairly common permanent resident found all over the county as high as 5,000' at Deep Springs Valley and as low as -178' at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. Barn Owls occur where there are open areas for hunting rodents, and nearby cliffs, dense vegetation, or man-made structures for roosting. Irregularly stacked bales of alfalfa have crevices which are used as roost sites. The first Barn Owl recorded for Inyo County was a dead one found at Alvord (Big Pine) in June 1891. Their call, a strong raspy hiss, is often heard at night along the Owens River and over towns.

The very secretive, tiny, nocturnal FLAMMULATED OWL is probably a fairly common summer resident, yet we know of its existence in the county by less than a dozen records. In September and October these birds move south to Mexico and Central America and return from March through May. Records exist from -178' at Furnace Creek Ranch to 10,400' in the White Mountains at Schulman Grove where a pair raised two young in the summer of 1990. Their preferred habitat for breeding is coniferous forest. The earliest county record was an immature female found dead in the Argus Mountains 11 August 1931.

The WESTERN SCREECH OWL is a fairly common permanent resident over most of the county. Its elevational range is from minus 178' at Furnace Creek Ranch to over 8000' in the White Mountains. Its call, like a bouncing ball increasing in tempo, is heard in towns, along rivers and streams and in coniferous forests. Juveniles have been sighted in Bishop and Big Pine. Surprisingly it was not recorded by the Death Valley Expedition of 1891. The first county record wasn't until 29 September 1917 in the Panamint Mountains.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is a fairly common permanent resident found over the entire county. They occupy all habitats from the desert scrub of Death Valley to the coniferous forests up to 9000' in the Sierra. This large nocturnal predator was first recorded in the Panamint Mountains by the Death Valley Expedition in early April 1891. Juveniles have been found along the Owens River, at Deep Springs and Devil's Gate on the Eureka Valley Road.

The tiny, partially diurnal NORTHERN PYGMY OWL is at best very uncommon and probably a rare permanent resident of coniferous forests. There are about ten records for the county from 3925' at Independence to 8500' in the pinyons of the Inyo Mountains. The first historical record was in the Panamint Mountains on 30 September 1917 by Joseph Grinnell from the University of California, Berkeley.

The small, partially diurnal BURROWING OWL is a locally uncommon summer resident. There are only a few winter records which suggests that during mild winters a few may remain. These ground owls prefer open areas with either elevated mounds of dirt or fence posts upon which they can survey their territory. They have been recorded from -260' at Bennett's Well, Death Valley to 5000' in Deep Springs Valley. The first county record was 11 May 1891 at Coso Valley by the Death Valley Expedition. Juveniles have been observed in Death Valley and Panamint Valley.

The LONG-EARED OWL, an uncommon permanent resident, has been found from -178' at Furnace Creek Ranch to 10,500' in the White Mountains. Records exist for the entire county but this secretive, dense-cover-preferring owl is often overlooked. Juveniles have been found along the Owens River, in Death Valley National Monument, and in most mountain ranges. Not recorded by the 1891 Death Valley Expedition, the first historical record was from the Panamint Mountains in October, 1917.

The grass dwelling SHORT-EARED OWL is a rare to very uncommon migrant and winter visitor. One summer record may reflect breeding but so far there is no conclusive evidence. The Cottonwood Springs area of Owens Lake has potential as a breeding site as does the Warm Springs area south of Bishop. They are known to breed north of us in Mono County and south of us in San Bernardino County so effort should be made to find the first nest. Most of the ten records are from Furnace Creek Ranch and a few from near Big Pine. The earliest historical record was from Furnace Creek Ranch on 8 December 1933.

Though the less than ten records would indicate that the small, secretive NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL is a rare permanent resident it is more likely only uncommon. Records exist from Furnace Creek Ranch (-178') to its preferred coniferous forest over 10,000' in the Sierra. The first record was at Wyman Canyon in the White Mountains by Alden Miller in June 1954 where juveniles were present.

CORRECTION: In a recent article in THE WAVE we covered Inyo's Hummingbirds. Allen's Hummingbird was listed based on a specimen from the Death Valley Museum. On reading the original paperwork we found that the specimen was found desiccated in the back of a car. Yes, the bird could have flown in where it was later found but it could also have died in the car hundreds of miles from Inyo and been transported here. Based on that possibility it must be deleted from the county list. Fame is fleeting!

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Winter Birds (11/'94)

Have you noticed that winter is not the same as summer! No, not the cooler temperatures, the lack of leaves or the cold winds, but the birds. Some species of birds visit us only in the winter while others, called permanent residents, are here all year. The obvious permanent residents familiar to most are American Crow, Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Blue Heron and others, all of which will suffer our winter with us.

As we human permanent residents know, winter can be very harsh in Inyo County. Because important bird food such as insects and fruit becomes scarce, those species who depend on it must migrate south where it is available year around. Of the 13 normally occurring flycatchers, only the Black Phoebe and Say's Phoebe remain. The rest migrate to Mexico, Central & South America in the company of our swallows, vireos and warblers. The only warbler that normally winters in the county is the Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler who, along with other insectivores, has adapted to exploiting food sources such as seeds and berries during the winter months. The Swainson's Hawk, a partial insectivore, spends our summer breeding and eating crop destroying insects in Inyo County, then migrates to Argentina where it spends its summer eating crop destroying insects too!

This dramatic change from summer to winter avifauna is marked by the early arrival of the Ferruginous Hawk. The earliest record is for 13 Aug. 1989 at Fish Springs, just south of Big Pine, but more typically this rusty buteo with the pointed wings arrives in late September and remains until March. The Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, broad-winged accipiters, become more numerous in September. October brings the Merlin and many more Prairie Falcons from the north. November will usher in the Rough-legged Hawk and Bald Eagle. Check for our national emblem at Tinemaha Reservoir and Haiwee Reservoir, two favorite fishing areas. Most of these raptors will remain until March.

Waterfowl are an important part of our winter avifauna. The first Greater White-fronted Geese come through in September. The earliest record is 2 Sep. 1990 at Owens Lake. Snow Geese, Canada Geese and Tundra Swans build up their numbers in November along with a wide variety of ducks such as Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, & Common Merganser.

You may have noticed that yards, gardens, and fields began filling with White-crowned Sparrows in September. This race (called Gambel's) breeds in northwest Canada and Alaska. The mountain race that bred in the Sierra has already departed for Mexico and won't return until next May. Mixed in with our wintering White-crowns are a few Golden-crowned Sparrows that also summered in the Pacific northwest. They can be more easily seen slightly upslope along the watered canyons.

American Pipits returned from the north in September and will be with us until April. They are common on golf courses, lawns, and along the edges of lakes and ponds. Their call, a high, sharp, "pip-pit" is given repeatedly as they fly overhead.

Many forms of the Dark-eyed Junco will entertain us through winter. The Oregon Junco may have bred in our local mountains, descending to the valley in winter. The Pink-sided and Slate-colored Juncos have come from far to the north and east of us. If you study these juncos closely, you may see many that seem to share marks of each. That's because they interbreed regularly!

A very special, but erratic, winter visitor is the Bohemian Waxwing. Examine all Cedar Waxwings closely to make sure you aren't overlooking this rare look-alike. Some years they don't move this far south, but if they do, you don't want to be one to miss out. The Bohemian has yellow "V's" and a white line on the wings and rusty undertail coverts.

Another special winter visitor, who also has a common look-alike, is the Northern Shrike. Check carefully all Loggerhead Shrikes for one that is larger, paler above, has faint barring on the breast, a larger bill, and a white rump. Be careful with the last mark as some of our Loggerheads also have a white rump. In some winters up to 4 or 5 Northern Shrikes are recorded in the county, while none are seen in other winters.

As there are many fewer species in the county during winter, the chances of confusing one species with another are greatly reduced. This is an excellent time to work on and learn to recognize our common birds. Check the birds in your yard and try to join one of the many Audubon field trips with experienced leadership that is anxious to help you solve your bird identification problems.

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