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Mt. Piños with Lawrence’s Goldfinches: 10-11 June 2017

June 15, 2017

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Northeastern view of Mt. Piños; 109 miles to horizon
(Shuttle Radar Topography Mission 2-16-00)

8843 feet high, Mt. Piños lies just across the Kern County line. Decades ago it was the best spot to sit and scan the skies for free-flying California Condors. The birds would soar by to the west and north, gliding at up to 60 MPH on rising thermals, rarely flapping except to flex their flight muscles.

Western Bluebird male watching for flies (D. Waterman 6-10-17)

Condors are again nesting (Devil’s Gate Condor Cam) in the Sespe wilderness about twenty miles to the south, but you might wait a very long time for one to fly by. Thirty-five years ago, I saw five condors in one day, driving along Mil Potrero Rd. west of Mt. Abel. Those days are gone.

California Quail, sentry for the flock below (J. Waterman 6-10-17)

Our birding group met at the “triangle” – a dirt parking lot at the intersection of Cuddy Valley Rd. and Mt. Piños Rd. – at 5500 ft. elevation. Altitude matters around here. We birded this area for a while – both chaparral brush and conifer forest – and found a few mid-altitude birds, including: California Quail, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow and the first of what proved to be a relatively huge number of Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Raven, Band-tailed Pigeon and Mourning Dove frequently passed over the parking area. A Bullock’s Oriole pair harassed three Ravens perched in a bare tree, finally driving them away. Bright yellow Wallflower bloomed on the forest fringe.

Yellow-faced Bumblebee on a Wax current flower (Ribes cereum) (J. Waterman 6-10-17)

As you ascend Mt. Piños, bird speciation changes. Scrub Jay disappears, Steller’s Jay appears, and at the highest levels, Clark’s Nutcrackers make themselves known by their loud raucous calls. Crows are replaced by Ravens. House Finch disappears and Cassin’s Finch appears, often in company with Purple Finch, which utilizes a middle range overlapping both House & Cassin’s. White-breasted Nuthatch – which can be found down close to sea level – are joined by both the noisily peeping Pygmy Nuthatch which typically forages in family flocks, and the more solitary Red-breasted Nuthatch. At higher levels, it is possible (or at least used to be) to find Calliope Hummingbird, feeding at the tiny flowers of current bushes and other low flowering plants. Although many of the currents were in flower and were loaded with bees, only one female Anna’s Hummingbird was seen.

Dark-eyed Junco juvenile (J. Waterman 6-10-17)

Moving upward, we passed by McGill Campground (elev. 7500 ft.) to visit a stream overlook and nearby trail. Water appears here only where underlying rock strata

Mountain Pink Current, Ribes nevadense Mt. Piños 7600 ft.
(L. Johnson 6-10-17 10:23am)

forces it to the surface, and at one such spot we found many birds coming to drink and bathe. An Olive-sided Flycatcher stopped his tree-top singing long enough to drink. Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Chipping Sparrow and Lazuli Bunting all came by. Juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos, Purple

Lawrence’s Goldfinch male (J. Waterman 6-11-17)

Finches and Lawrence’s Goldfinches bathed. Pygmy Nuthatchs and Violet-green Swallows were both nesting – or at least investigating nest holes – in a large dead tree. We were baffled when we saw a Pygmy Nuthatch go in and out of a nest hole, then a few minutes later a Violet-green Swallow went in out of the same hole. Back by the car we found a Hairy Woodpecker and a Brown Creeper working the conifers.

Green-tailed Towhee, singing loudly (J. Waterman 6-10-17)

White-headed Woodpecker male
(J. Waterman 6-10-17)

Iris Meadow (8300 ft,) lies just
past the parking lot at the top of the road. Fox Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees both sang as we searched in vain the numerous patches of flowering current bush for Calliope Hummingbird. The Fox and Green-tailed are both excellent – and annoyingly similar – singers, with burblely varied songs, and we never get tired of hearing them. At lunchtime under the pines, we heard a rapid drumming in the distance, which proved to be a male White-headed Woodpecker banging on a dead tree.

Pussy Paws Calyptridium umbellatum; Mt. Piños summit
(J. Waterman 6-10-17)

Acmon Blue, a tiny butterfly on the upper Mt. Piños meadow (J. Waterman 6-10-17)

A few of us hiked an addition mile and several hundred feet in altitude up to the next meadow where we saw more Fox Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees, a singing Rock Wren on his crag and many Ravens overhead, but no Clark’s Nutcrackers. The single “perp” of a male Mountain Quail was heard in the distance. The flowers here are mostly low, or small, or both, but were frequented by insects.

After awakening around 6am next morning, we hit the road by 8 and drove over to Mt. Abel to visit “Shirley’s Seep,” a small but permanent source of water about halfway up the road to the top of Mt. Abel. For an hour we watched birds come and go, and were amazed at the (relative) abundance

Lawrence’s Goldfinch pair at the water seep (D. Waterman 6-11-17)

of Lawrence’s Goldfinch. This species is usually in small numbers and difficult to find, but we’d seen them everywhere on this trip. Violet-green Swallows constantly sailed by, sometimes low to scoop up a beakful of water on the fly. Various finches and juncos took baths and preened themselves dry while perched on twigs.

Grinnell’s Beardtongue Penstemon grinnellii, Shirley’s Seep, Mt. Abel
(L. Johnson 06-11-17)

After a short drive to the chilly top of Mt. Abel to search again, without success, for Clark’s Nutcracker, we returned to the seep for a last look at the bathing birds.

View from Shirley’s Seep, Mt. Abel (L. Johnson 06-11-17)

The flowering and nesting at Mt. Piños should continue into early July. The irises of Iris Meadow will be blooming soon, and perhaps the Calliope Hummingbirds will eventually appear.

Fox Sparrow (Large-billed form)
(D. Waterman 6-10-17)

It’s a great place to camp and uncloudy moonless nights are great for star gazing & satellite spotting. Call the local ranger station for information at 661-245-3731 ext 0; camping information is 805-434-1996, but frankly, the campgrounds were so empty you could probably just show up. [Chuck Almdale]

Mt. Pinos ranger district
McGill Campground
Mt. Piños Campground

Trip List 2017
All Triangle Overlook Iris Shirley’s McGill
10-11 June Areas  Area & Stream Meadow Seep Camp
Mountain Quail 2 1H 1H
California Quail 2 10 2
Red-tailed Hawk 2 1 1
Band-tailed Pigeon 3 8 2 6
Mourning Dove 3 2 4 2
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1
Downy Woodpecker 1 1
Hairy Woodpecker 1 1
White-headed Woodpecker 1 1
Northern Flicker 1 1
Olive-sided Flycatcher 2 1H 1
Western Wood-Pewee 5 1+2H 2 2 1 1
Steller’s Jay 4 2 3 8 3
Western Scrub-Jay 1 3
Common Raven 4 10 30 4 3
Violet-green Swallow 5 10 12 6 42 8
Mountain Chickadee 4 5 10 8 4
Red-breasted Nuthatch 2 1 1
Pygmy Nuthatch 3 2 2 3
Brown Creeper 1 1
House Wren 1 1H
Western Bluebird 5 4 2 4 9 6
American Robin 5 5 2H 2 2 1H
Orange-crowned Warbler 1 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1 1
Green-tailed Towhee 2 2+2H 1+2H
Chipping Sparrow 3 4 2 4
Fox Sparrow 3 2H 4+2H 2+2H
Dark-eyed Junco 4 4 2 3 6
Lazuli Bunting 2 2 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 1 1
Bullock’s Oriole 1 2
House Finch 1 1
Purple Finch 1 2
Cassin’s Finch 3 2 4 2
Lawrence’s Goldfinch 2 2 30
Total 36 16 16 18 18 16
H = Heard
Triangle = Area around intersection of Cuddy Valley Rd. & Mt. Piños Rd.
Overlook = Streamside area & trail between McGill & Mt. Piños campgrounds
Iris Meadow = Area around meadow at top of Mt. Piños Rd. & 1-mile walk to next meadow above @ 9300-9600 ft.
Shirley’s Seep = Roadside seep 1/2 way up Cerro Noroeste Rd. & Mt. Abel campground at top
McGill Campground = Campground 1/2 up Mt. Piños Rd. @ 7500 ft.

 

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