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Eastern Sierra Wave, May/June 2004

Evening Programs

Evening programs will preceded by announcements of interest to the membership, and recent bird sightings and other local natural history news. Come prepared to participate!

May 12
Refreshments: Margie and Ed Evans

The Birds of La Brea
Ron Smith

The world's greatest treasure of ice age mammal and bird fossils lie within the crude oil beds of the Rancho La Brea in West Los Angeles, where scientists have unearthed over 67 species of mammals and over 100 species of birds. Collectively, these diverse fossils have given us an accurate insight into the ice age ecosystem of Southern California.  

Fossil birds have been a vital piece in decoding the ice age flora and fauna of the California coastline.  Many ground birds require specific plants that live in a narrow range of rainfall and temperature. Large birds that become trapped in the crude oil beds form a "predator trap" that attracts diverse populations of scavenger birds, mammals, and insects. Over time, a relatively small surface area of oil entraps an incredibly large amount of live forms. This makes Rancho La Brea the world's richest fossil bed in both animal numbers and diversity.

While growing up in Pasadena, Ron Smith earned Master's degrees in Astronomy and Speech Communication from the University of Southern California. He recently retired and moved to Bishop after 32 years of full time teaching in California's Community College System. During the 1970s Mr. Smith worked part time at the Page Museum of Natural History conducting tours of the La Brea fossils. After reliving those days with his main presentation, he will return briefly to his astronomer persona by offering us the opportunity to see high power views of Jupiter and Saturn.

June 9

Audubon Annual June Picnic

 Audubon members are invited to attend our annual picnic on Wednesday, June 9th, at 6 pm.  Mary and Derrick Vocelka have again offered their lovely garden for the event.  Please bring a dish and beverage to share, a friend, and a folding chair. The address is 2433 Apache Drive in Bishop. If you have any questions, please call Mary and Derrick at 873-4480; and call Mary if you have a folding card table you could bring.

Election of Officers  Running for reelection:  Joan Benner, Vice-President; Mary Vocelka, Secretary; Bill Mitchel, Treasurer. James Wilson has one more year as President and does not plan to seek reelection at the end of his term. Call James if you have any questions.

Correction: For the Love of Swing

The credit for the $300 donation to Audubon in the last newsletter goes to John Wedberg and his For the Love of Swing Band. They perform monthly at Whiskey Creek to benefit worthwhile local causes. - Dorothy Burnstrom

President's Message - An Unexpected Wren

Saturday the 24th of April was Earth Day. This year Eastern Sierra Audubon Society with California Native Plant Society, Range of Light Chapter of the Sierra Club, Bishop Rotary and Caltrans sponsored another Owens River Cleanup. About 30 people picked up trash for over two hours hours. Kay and I filled four or five heavy duty Caltrans trash bags with a variety of detritus: soda containers and cups; wrappers for fast food meals; fishing tackle packaging; fishing pole pieces; hubcaps and wheel covers; ammunition remnants including 308 Winchester, 22 rim fire, and a unfired .410 shell; disposable diapers, toilet paper and other unmentionable personal stuff.  Beer cans and bottles and their boxes were tops. The spring loaded pickers provided by Caltrans made the most obnoxious objects possible to stuff into plastic bags.

         However, the most interesting thing I found talked back to me. Under a sagebrush near the river was a 12-pack beer container wedged far back among the branches with trash and sticks protruding from it. I grabbed it with my picker and stuffed into the bag. To my surprise it started peeping wildly! I quickly pulled the box out of the trash, and realized there was a young partially feathered Bewick's Wren in my trash bag. The frantic little thing attempted to escape my obvious intent to eat it and burrowed further into the debris. I wedged the box back into the bush and turned to my frightened tiny acquaintance. My first thought, to pick him from the junk with my mechanical picker,  was obviously too dangerous to his frail little self. So my gloved hand moved the broken glass, cans, rusted wired, and unmentionables aside and picked him up. At this point he was sure I was about to eat him. Placed next to the box, he started to run away.  I turned him around and into the nest. Back into the dark he went. All this time his parent from within the big bush was vociferously scolding me. I put a big tumbleweed in front of the box, to keep others from cleaning it up, and backed away. Hopefully a ripe old wren life awaits the little bird.

         The moral of this story is you never knows what is next as you walk down the road. Even the most obnoxious trash sometimes yields a moment of beauty. It was fun to do something positive for Earth Day and for our river. And it was fun to meet the wrens. Thanks to all who showed and we hope to see you there next year.


May and June Events

Saturday, May 1 - Spring Warbler Migration at Baker Creek with Earl Gann.
Spring Warbler Migration at Baker Creek - Join leader Earl Gann on one of the most spectacular field trips of the year: Spring migration at Baker Creek.  A great trip for beginners and children.  Expect warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, and orioles all in breeding plumage. Meet at Glacier View Campground at 7:00AM. Bring snacks, water, and wear shoes that can get damp. Call 873-7422 for more information.

Saturday, May 8 - Inyo County Bird-A-Thon 2004. Last year 218 species were found! See enclosed flyer or contact Mike Prather,

June 18, 19, and 20 - Third Annual Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua.  Twenty-five years ago birds became a rallying point for the protection of Mono Lake. Today we celebrate the area's rich bird life and its historical and scientific significance.The Third Annual Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua highlights include a wide variety of birding field trips and hikes around the Mono Basin led by Kenn Kaufman, Rich Stallcup, Jon Dunn, David Lukas, Chris Elphick, Jeff Maurer and many others; evening presentations by Kenn Kaufman, David Winkler and others, storytelling with Ane Carla Rovetta, and mist netting and bird banding with PRBO Conservation Science staff biologists. The weekend will conclude with live music on Sunday afternoon performed by folk singer, Carrie Newcomer.

PRBO, US Forest Service, Mono Lake Committee, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, and Eastern Sierra Audubon Society are joint sponsors of this popular event. Registration opened on April 15th and by 10:00 a.m., seventy people had registered for the nearly 60 events being offered. Pre-registration is a must. Most of the events have limited space and will be filled on a first-registered, first-served basis.

Registration is $25 per person for up to four events, $45 for five or more events; kids under 12 are free. "Sponsor" level registration is offered for those wishing to have a greater role in supporting this event.  For more information see or contact festival organizers at  

The Solitary Vireo Complex
in Inyo County

Tom and Jo Heindel

        Until 1997, the Solitary Vireo in the United States consisted of four subspecies. Since then, based on additional research, the Solitary Vireo has been split into three full species. The eastern and northern races were merged as the Blue-headed Vireo, the Pacific coast birds became the Cassin's Vireo, and the Rocky Mountain form the Plumbeous Vireo.

        All three species have been documented in Inyo County. Only the Plumbeous Vireo is known as a breeder and regular summer resident in the pinyon-juniper habitats throughout the county. The Pacific coast Cassin's Vireo is a spring and fall migrant through the county and is more common in spring than in fall. The Blue-headed Vireo is a vagrant to our area with but two records, both from Death Valley National Park. One was at Panamint Springs 3 Oct 1989 (Jon Dunn, AB 44:164) and the other at Furnace Creek Ranch 23 September 1991 (Jon Dunn, AB 46:151).

        All field guides make identification seem rather straightforward in separating these three taxa, and often it is. However, there are pitfalls that are underappreciated and lead to misidentifications. Vireos are brightest in early fall immediately after molt when their new feathers are unworn and colors are not faded by UV rays and wear. They are most drab and dull in summer just before fall molt. Many are fairly dull in spring with females always tending to less color than males. Thus, a young female in spring or summer when one year old may be particularly dull.  

        The biggest challenge for Inyo birders is trying to separate a dull Cassin's from Plumbeous. We regularly receive reports of Plumbeous Vireo in April and even late March that undoubtedly are very dull, probably young female, Cassin's Vireos. Cassin's have been recorded as migrants throughout the state during April and a few earlier in late March with peak numbers in May. Plumbeous move later. The misconception is that if there is no yellow on the flanks then it must be a Plumbeous...or Gray, which is another article.

        Think about the habitat in which Plumbeous breed, pinyon-juniper, and then what it is like in April at 7000-9000'. It is still winter-like and these conditions may prevail well into May preventing the insect activity that is necessary for the vireos' food supply. Plumbeous Vireos winter, for the most part, in Mexico, although a few are known to winter along coastal California. The recently published Birds of the Salton Sea (Patten et al. 2003) lists two spring migrants sightings from late April and mid May as tentative only and state that "there are virtually no physically documented records at that season." Considering the number of highly qualified birders working this popular birding destination, if Plumbeous were coming through in March and April there would be unequivocal records.

        Any suspected Plumbeous Vireos in Inyo County prior to mid May should be meticulously documented with particular attention given to head and back color and contrast, flank color, and the color of the edges of the secondaries and tertials.

        As if that isn't enough, another problem involves separating very bright and freshly molted fall Cassin's from Blue-headed Vireo! The Blue-headed has strongly contrasting gray to blue-gray head and green back, pure white throat cut off sharply with gray cheeks, and white in the tail. With only two accepted records great detail is required and as this is a reviewable bird by the California Bird Records Committee one must submit the documentation to the Committee for peer review.  
        Competent observers have reported Cassin's Vireos that they thought were breeding in the Sierra based on singing birds that seemed to be territorial. Subsequent searches revealed that they were just late migrants. Both sexes of vireos are known to sing and reportedly throughout the year. Two excellent sources for detailed information and photographs on the identification of these three species are: 1) Heindel, M.T. 1996. Birding 28: p. 459 and 2) Zimmer, K. 2000. Birding the American West, p. 242.

        The complexity and difficulty in separating some individuals in the Solitary Vireo complex rivals the infamous Empidonax flycatchers challenge. When in doubt claim a "Solitary Vireo" and you will ensure accuracy ...unless it is a Gray Vireo!


Pleasant Birding in Pleasant Valley

Kathy Duvall

On a warm March morning 30 birders gathered at the Gorge Power Plant to see what was happening along the Owens River and on Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

        We quickly spotted two American Dippers with nest building material flying up river. Unfortunately, they flew into the turbine area to build their nest and we all hoped for the best. As we followed the river towards the reservoir, we first heard and then saw Rock Wrens and soon spotted a Great Blue Heron perched high up on the cliffs at skyline. No Snipes or Teal at the mud flats where the river empties into the reservoir, but we did see many ducks bobbing in the distance. We had good looks at male and female Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks, Common Mergansers and Lesser Scaups. We found one male Pied-billed Grebe and a female Cinnamon Teal was also spotted.

        After most people had walked back to their cars, a few folks were lucky enough to see a Bald Eagle with a fish in its talons.  After fending off a pesky raven, the Eagle ducked his head underneath his body and nibbled on his lunch-to-go several times before flying out of sight.

        Thanks to our leader, Jerry, for getting us out there.

50 Feet Up at Bishop City Park

Debby Parker

On March 2, 2004, this beautiful pair of Wood Ducks watched us watching them as they rested in the high limbs of the huge cottonwoods at the rear of the park. They flew from tree to tree and eventually made their way to the Park pond. These cottonwoods in the park are valuable for our birds; it appears these Wood Ducks think so.

Eastern Sierra Audubon Action:
Hurrah for Howard and Kudos to Kiddoo

Debby Parker reports that Chris Howard and Phill Kiddoo have completed Birds in the Classroom presentations to eight classes of third graders, with a "super" PowerPoint presentation by Phill.

Highway Cleanup Appreciated

A great big thank you to all who took part in our spring highway clean-up  March 27th. Anyone who hasn't experienced breakfast at Tom's Place followed by a perfect way to work off breakfast is encouraged to join us for the next clean-up. The faithful, dedicated trash picker uppers were Gordon and June Nelson, John and Dorothy Burnstrom, Bill Mitchell, Sandra Whitehouse, and John and Ros Gorham.

PRBO Conservation Science's Eastern Sierra field station embarks upon the 2004 field season with a new study of songbirds in sagebrush habitats, and exciting intensification of research on nest predators and cowbirds. Their longterm study of breeding riparian songbirds continues. The results of PRBO's cutting-edge research are available to everyone online at, or for hard copies call 647-6109.


Cartago Springs Committee

The acquisition of the Cartago Springs property near Olancha was exciting news for Eastern Sierra Audubon. Purchased from a Canadian with dreams of a bottled water project by the California Department of Fish and Game using bond funds, Cartago Springs is now safe into the future for wildlife and the public. Our members have been conducting bird surveys and field trips at Cartago Springs since the mid 1980s. Few places in Owens Valley offer the opportunity to see so many species of birds in such a small but diverse habitat area. Uplands, marsh and mudflats are all present. It is possible to see 20-30 species of birds within 20-30 minutes walking through the site.

        Eastern Sierra Audubon is currently seeking members to help form an Audubon Cartago Springs Committee to begin planning how our chapter can use the property for public education. It is a perfect "gateway" site for welcoming visitors to the Eastern Sierra by sharing the rich wildlife values that exist there. Many other Audubon chapters throughout the country are involved in this sort of project. We will develop bird lists, maps interpretation information and regular field trips for the public.

        If you would like to join our Cartago Springs Committee contact Mike Prather <>, 876-5807, Drawer D, Lone Pine, Ca 93545.

Help Audubon Pass
Clean Water/Wetlands Bill

Julia Levin, Policy Director for
Audubon California

Audubon California and many Audubon Chapters are sponsoring a major clean water and wetlands bill to fill in a huge gap created recently in the federal Clean Water Act.  Senate Bill 1477, authored by Senator Byron Sher (D- Palo Alto), will require the State Water Resources Control Board to regulate fill and discharges into non-navigable, intrastate waters that are no longer federally protected.  Those waters include California's seasonal rivers, streams and lakes, vernal pools, more than half of the state's wetlands, many of the streams and lakes in the Sierras, and the drinking water sources for more than half of all Californians.

        Following a very narrowly worded Supreme Court decision in 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a "guidance" to its field offices that virtually eliminates federal protection for almost 20 million acres of sensitive wetlands and thousands of miles of streams.  In response to overwhelming public and state opposition, the EPA dropped its formal rulemaking process to codify the change, but did not withdraw the "guidance" to its field offices to eliminate protection of these waters, in effect leaving the enormous and very dangerous loophole in place. Several states have introduced legislation to fill in the gap.

        California has as much or more at stake than other states.  Because California receives most of its rain and snow during the winter, many of its streams and lakes are dry for much of the year.  Many others are simply not navigable. Many of these wetlands provide pollution protection and additional sources for some or all of the drinking water for more than twenty million Californians.  These non-navigable waters are no longer provided the basic protections of the Federal Clean Water Act.   

        Clean water is essential to human health.  It is also essential to California's economy.  Many of these unprotected waters provide important flood and erosion control, water filtration, and habitat for fisheries, endangered species, and game species. In California alone, wildlife related activities add $2.6 billion annually to the State's economy.  The water filtration and flood control services provided by these unprotected waters save millions of dollars as well.  And even the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found recently that pollution control laws save far more in public health dollars than they cost to implement.

        Californians overwhelmingly support clean water protection and, not surprisingly, rank it as one of the State's biggest priorities. Water pollution, like most types of pollution, disproportionately affects low-income communities and California's most vulnerable populations: children, the elderly and those with impaired immune systems. But it affects us all.

        Please help Audubon California and your Audubon Chapter to pass SB 1477 by contacting your state Senator and Assemblymember and urging them to support SB 1477.  You can find out who your state legislators are by going to To get their contact information go to or and click on "legislators."  

        For more information, background materials, and sample support letters, go to

Avian Classical Music: Birds in Tuxedos?

Larry Blakely
Birds have often been a source of thematic material for composers of classical music. I was recently inspired to explore this matter, deciding to limit the study to instrumental music. I came up with a list of about 30 composers, from the Englishman Giles Farnaby (ca. 1563-1640), who wrote a piece for the harpsichord based on the call of the "Woody-Cock", to the Finnish musician, Harri Viitanen (born 1954), who composed a work he called "The Blackbird for Solo Oboe" over the period 1999-2001. Although some of the composers on my list are American, most are European, and the Nightingale, Cuckoo, and Skylark figure prominently among the compositions.

         My favorite bird of all time is the Common Skylark. When I, my wife, and our daughters lived in Edinburgh for a few months in 1975, we often walked over to Blackford Hill, where Skylarks were to be found, and sat on the grassy slopes, letting ourselves be charmed by their song and aerobatics. One of the most frequently played pieces of bird-inspired classical music is Ralph Vaughn Williams' "The Lark Ascending", in which the Skylark is portrayed delightfully by a violin.

         The Common Nightingale (a European Thrush) and the Common Cuckoo of Europe (a bit larger than our Yellow-billed Cuckoo) appear, together or separately, in many works. I have crossed paths with neither species, so I don't have the experience to understand what all the fuss is about there. Of course I've heard cuckoo clocks, and can stretch my imagination! The famous two notes are heard repeatedly, and thrillingly, in the first movement of Gustav Mahler's marvelous First Symphony.

         Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) composed a familiar piece, more or less in a Romantic vein, simply entitled "The Birds", with sections devoted to the dove, the hen, the nightingale, and the cuckoo, all depicted by instruments. But, in a first, he used an actual bird recording for a section of one of his other often-played works, "The Pines of Rome", which was written in 1924. The recording was of the nightingale, and it seems to me that that was a pretty audacious thing to do way back then; but, that was many years after Edison's first cylinders, and the technology of sound recording was obviously well enough advanced to make the feat practical. Respighi would probably be quite amazed at how well the nightingale can be reproduced in the concert hall nowadays, whenever his work is performed. The nightingale warbles and trills, like a sweeter variety of our mockingbird, over the softly playing flute and strings for one minute of the 20 minute piece.

         Then there's the second movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, "The Pastorale". You're on a walk through the woods, and come to a brook. At first all you hear is the rush of the waters, the birds having been silenced by your approach. But, after a while, the birds begin to sing, tentatively at first, then ever bolder. Both Cuckoos and Nightingales (and even Quail) eventually become raucous in song, as portrayed by instruments of the orchestra. Beethoven loved his walks in the woods and wrote, "How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do ... my bad hearing does not trouble me here. In the country, every tree seems to speak to me, saying 'Holy! Holy!'. In the woods, there is enchantment which expresses all things."

         The American composer John Luther Adams (born 1953), composes in a one room log cabin in Alaska. (He is not to be confused with a more famous contemporary John Adams.) In the 1970s he wrote a series of short pieces for piccolos and percussion, which he called "songbirdsongs". Environmentalist guru Edward Abbey, in a letter to Adams in 1978, wrote, "Your musical evocation of the hermit thrush . . . moved me to tears." When an artistic spirit captures well one of our favorite objects of nature, be it on canvas, music, or other medium, it can evoke deep emotion.

         Olivier Messiaen (Frenchman, 1908-1992) visited bird habitats all over the world, and recorded their songs in musical notation in the field; his wife, who accompanied him, captured the songs on tape as well. He wrote a large number of solo piano pieces, each based on the song or call of a specific bird. He also wrote chamber and orchestral works based on birdsong themes. He was called "An Audubon in Sound" in a great article about him, and birdsong as music, in the March 1997 issue of "The Atlantic Monthly" (it's online). Highly creative souls such as Messiaen often hear things differently from us mortals, so it should be no surprise that many of his musical portrayals might be a bit difficult for even the expert birder to ID. Harri Viitanen took things further technologically, using a computer to process bird songs he had recorded himself, later incorporating the results into his music.

         Of course, the ultimate involvement of bird song in classical music would be the use of live birds themselves. One might fancifully imagine a row of gilded cages suspended from similarly gilded stands, arranged to the conductor's left, in front of the violins; each bird, alertly watching the maestro, would belt forth whenever the conductor pointed the baton its way. Well, no one has quite done that yet, as far as I am aware; but it was interesting to learn, if true, that Mozart trained a pet Starling to whistle in its entirety all of one movement of his G major piano concerto, though the bird consistently sang two notes a bit flat.

         The piece that inspired this little study is "Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra", by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. This avian symphonic work is different from those mentioned above, in that actual bird sounds, on tape, are melded with the music of the orchestra throughout the three part piece. Though a modern composition, it is quite "accessible". Rautavaara, born in 1928, is still actively composing and is highly regarded both professionally and by the public. His works are represented on over 80 commercially available CDs. He is considered something of a romantic or even a mystic, and his work has been called "both melodic and contemporary." He wrote "Cantus Arcticus" in 1972 for the first commencement ceremonies of a new university in the north of Finland. The bird sounds were recorded in Arctic regions of Finland.

         Other animals, of course, have influenced classical composers. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" immediately jumps to mind. Similar in vein to Rautaavara's work is the 1970 piece by American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), "And God Created Great Whales", which incorporates recorded Humpback Whale sounds. No sounds are to be expected from the vegetable world, but nevertheless it also is represented in classical music, for instance a charming 1959 composition inspired by Linnaeus, "The Flower Clock", by Jean Francaix (1919-1997).

         Should you like to expand your birding horizons in this direction, the works mentioned and many more are readily available on CDs. A nice challenge might be to try to identify those arctic birds!

         (An enhanced version of this essay, with illustrations and notes, is  at:

It's a Wild Life

James Wilson sent this hand-penned missive "from an anonymous back country ranger friend of mine" - Editor

Just Wanted to Say "Hello!"

This is fresh. It happened one minute ago.

        I'm parked at the Bridgeport warehouse where I stay when I'm not at Piute. Late afternoon, breezy. I was writing in my Piute log sitting on a folding cap chair just outside my camper with a view of the Sawtooth and all if I glanced up.

        I was writing away, could hear the sounds of the highway far off and, closer, neighborhood sounds of children and barking dogs. Not paying attention to any of it. One of the sounds I was blocking out was closer, the simple exclamatory note of the rock wren: "Tee-keer! Tee-keer!" I knew it but hadn't noticed......until a rock wren hopped into view at my feet and stood there looking up at me, looming giantly.

I was sitting in the chair, legs crossed, clipboard in lap. I had to shift my eyes only ten degrees or so to lock onto the small tan-colored bird with lively shiny glass jet-black beads for eyes. I was not writing when it arrived; I was thinking - intent, elsewhere - so I was motionless.

        Rock wrens are amiable, tame, tiny birds of desert and scrubland. In Saline Valley they'll visit your camp daily, cleaning up the crumbs, always with a friendly word or wave. Notoriously tame. I once saw one hop into the back of my camper for a look. So I wasn't shocked to see this little brown bird six inches from my dangling foot.

        But then it hopped onto my foot. Bobbed once, twice (as they do), said "Tee-keer!" then with a big hop and a wing beat it was on my knee, bobbed once, twice, gave me a studied gaze (which I felt as an appraisal) and said, "Tee-keer!"

        Then it hopped with one beat and landed on my hat, stood on my head. I moved not at all. I could feel the pressure of its feet when it bobbed. "Tee-keer!" Then nothing: gone. But the grace remained. I was trembling; not from excitement but from that current of joy that is almost a residue in the wake of such gifts.

        Minutes before this I was writing in my log, after a close encounter with a buck deer at the cabin, how exalted I felt; how, since childhood, I've idealized the notion of being accepted by the wild ones. These meetings always - for a moment - make the world whole and complete.