The Sierra, Mono Lake & the White Mountains
During June and July I had the pleasure of teaching several classes in the Mono Basin and other parts of the Sierra. I also led a great tour in Yosemite National Park. While I was in this dynamic part of California I camped amongst the ancient Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains. I have included a few photographs of these starkly beautiful trees and landscapes. I climbed White Mountain Peak, the third highest mountain in the state, which afforded amazing views, alpine wildflowers, marmots and rosy finches. Mono Lake is one of my favorite places and those of you that have spent time with me there know why. The wildflowers in glacially carved Lundy Canyon were spectacular. Kayaking by the lake's iconic tufa towers thousands of migratory Wilson's Phalaropes fed near us or flew by. I surveyed bird populations at Devil's Postpile National Monument and the Inyo National forest nearby. This gem is a bit off the beaten path, but the stunning basaltic columns make this a truly worthwhile destination. Colorful lilies, huge Jeffrey pines, nesting woodpeckers and other wildlife complement varied mountain habitats here.
Save Panoche Valley
On February 19 I had the pleasure of joining a group of Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society members on an excursion to Panoche Valley. Like many unknown valleys within California's mountains, Panoche is really a broad plain. It is bordered by the inner coast or Diablo range to the west and low mountains on the east that separate it from the Central Valley.
I had been to Panoche Valley several times before, although not for about six years. On our last visit, Susan and I counted four Roadrunners and other species typical of dry interior habitats on Panoche’s Christmas Bird Count. Like many other intact grassland habitats, this is an excellent place to see raptors such as Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon and Ferruginous Hawk. Mountain Bluebird, Cassin's Kingbird and Phainopepla are other uncommon birds seen in the area.
Perhaps the species that is the most sought after here by birders is the Mountain Plover. In addition to Panoche Valley, the Carrizo Plain, parts of the Imperial Valley and Solano County are the only regions of the state where these birds winter. Recently Susan and I participated in a statewide census of this declining species. We did not see any in the parts of the Central Valley that we searched. In the areas other teams located them they were in fewer numbers than in previous years.
So we were delighted to find four Mountain Plovers on a short grass expanse. These birds are misnamed. They are really a bird of the prairie, both in their small breeding range and in areas where they spend the winter. The photographers among us were especially happy as they approached to within a hundred feet, fed, than ran and fed again.
To the eye this seems a remarkably tranquil spot only two hours form San Jose. Generations of families have raised cattle here and there is a growing industry of organic produce and an organic dairy. However, these families, their way of life and the natural habitats are now in jeopardy. San Benito County has approved a massive solar power facility that would use enormous quantities of water, create dust storms and cover much of the valley floor with millions of mirrors.
The ability to produce clean, renewable power from an unlimited source is clearly a better choice than coal, nuclear or other technologies that have many problems. And there are other locations where the impacts of such a massive project would be acceptable. Panoche Valley is not such a site.
Additionally there is a lot of evidence that the millions of dollars of federal funds that would be spent on this project could be used more efficiently and generate many more jobs if those funds were used on small-scale solar projects.
Save Panoche Valley and Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society are the organizations that are pursuing legal action to stop this inappropriate development. For more information on the battle and ways that you can help please contact them. And visit Panoche Valley to get a real appreciation for this unique part of California, its wildlife and the people that live there.
On our trips we saw about 75 species of birds. Certainly the most obvious were tens of thousands of Snow and White-fronted Geese that filled the sky. Raptors were abundant as well. It’s easy to ignore Red-tailed Hawks after one has already seen 25 or so. We did take more detailed looks at White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier and an amazingly close Peregrine Falcon. The latter was perched on a channel marker affording us incredible eye level views of this magnificent predator. Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were also enjoyed by the groups on board, included one, presumably male, who picked up a stick, offered it to its mate and then jumped, wings spread into the air. Although these birds do not breed locally they do start their courtship activities on the wintering grounds.
Close views of an American Bittern and a Great Horned Owl that chose an unlikely open post for a place to incubate her eggs were also avian highlights. Although we did not see beaver as we have in the past, a Coyote that kept pace with the boat on top of a nearby levee was a first for us.
A roughly six week dry spell, unusual for its length here in central California, came to an end the day after our last trip. We were blessed with spectacular calm, sunny weather to enjoy this special part of California. Although the Delta is within a couple hours drive of almost ten million people, the back roads crossing it are lightly used. However, the best way to fully experience it is by boat and our trips on the Delphinus afforded us such a unique experience.