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Irises blooming in Mt. Piños’ mountaintop meadow: 9-10 June 2018

June 20, 2018

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Ladybug…or Lady-Long-Legs? Mt. Piños (Roxy Seidner 6-9-18)

It’s easy to forget how quickly the chill sets in at 7500 ft. when the sun goes behind a cloud or the breeze stiffens. Our favorite campsites at McGill Campground on Mt. Piños are open and sunny, great for catching the warming morning sun or viewing the nighttime stars, but they provide scant protection from blustery breezes. In the late afternoon as the sun drops, we go from tee-shirts, sandals and shorts to thermal underwear and hooded fleecy jackets in a matter of minutes.

Roxie laughs, Mary seems skeptical (Dan Seidner_6-9-18)

As usual we began the trip at the “triangle” – the dirt parking lot at the intersection of Cuddy Valley Rd. and Mt. Piños Rd. – twelve miles west of I-5. At 5500 ft. elevation, this was the lowest elevation we would bird.

Lodgepole Chipmunk, Mt. Piños (Dan Seidner 6-9-18)

In the nearby mixed coniferous-hardwood forest we found: California Quail, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Bluebird and Chipping Sparrows. A special treat was the very actively feeding flock of Pygmy Nuthatches whom we watched for about 10 minutes. This group of about 15 birds was likely composed of two or three nuthatch families. After fledging from the nest, the young stay in a family group with their parents, and similarly foraging families join in. These groups can number into many dozens of birds as more families join up.

Pygmy Nuthatch – that may be sawdust on his face; Mt. Pinos
(Dan Seidner 6-9-18)

We also saw the coal-gray-crested Steller’s Jay and heard the crestless California Scrub-Jay. This is an altitudinal “blend zone” for these two species, as well as for House and Purple Finches. Violet-green Swallows, Ravens, Band-tailed Pigeons and – new to us for the Mt. Piños area – Eurasian Collared-Doves were visible from the parking area. On the forest edges we found blooming pinkish Currant – some say Gooseberry – and bright yellow Wallflower.

Wallflowers, Mt. Abel (Roxy Seidner 6-10-18)

NEWS FLASH! – Alert reader and California native plant maven Grace Murayama just informed me that currants and gooseberries are in the same genus of Ribes, and that we saw both on this trip. There are more than 150 species in the Ribes genus. In general, currants have no spines or thorns and flowers are in clusters; gooseberries have thorns and many small flowers. The photo below looks like currant (flowers in clusters). Your regular field trip report will now resume.

Currant flowers are in clusters (Roxy Seidner 6-9-18)

Five miles up Mt. Piños Rd. we passed McGill Campground (elev. 7500 ft.), stopped at a road pullout overlooking a stream, and walked a nearby trail. Water appears in this streambed only where underlying rock strata forces it to the surface. Compared to last year we found very little water and fewer birds.  Two White-headed Woodpeckers alternated between drinks of water and whacking the base of a tree. A Fox Sparrow, of the Thick-billed P. stephensi subspecies, burbled his song from an overhead limb. All three Nuthatch species were present. A small, recently excavated hole on the top side of a narrow limb was repeatedly visited by a Red-breasted Nuthatch. The limb looked too narrow to allow a full nest hole to be dug, but the hole – about the same diameter as the bird – seemed too large to be the result of drilling for a single insect. The nuthatch’s visits to the hole were too brief to see exactly it was up to. Another mystery never to be solved.

Male Boisduval’s Blue, Plebeius icarioides, on Lupine host plant, Mt. Piños (Grace Murayama 6-9-18)

Odd rock, Mt. Piños (Roxy Seidner 6-9-18)

This trail is frequented by mountain bikers who have figured out how to never have to ride uphill, only down. Very fortunate for them, and the opposite of how we walked to school when we were kids: through deep snow or torrential rain and uphill in both directions. The riders shouted warnings at us – most of the time – often adding how many riders were yet to come. “Three more! Two more! One more!” No one was hit. Returning to the cars we noticed a curious rock which looked like a petrified tree with rings.

Iris Meadow (8300 ft,) lies just past the road-end parking area. This is the most reliable location for singing and viewable Fox Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees, and they did not disappoint. Several birders were quite eager to see the towhee, and were greatly relieved when one appeared trailside even before we got to the picnic tables for lunch and were still burdened with foodstuffs. Irises bloomed in the meadow, something we’ve missed in recent years because we either arrived too early or too late in the season. Sorry – no photos.

Paintbrush, Mt. Piños (Grace Murayama 6-9-10)

Both species sang intermittently during lunch, and as usual no one could quite figure out how to tell their songs apart. Just when you think you’ve nailed one bird’s song, they change it. Both have beautiful, bubbly and varied songs. We celebrated two birthdays while a White-headed Woodpecker worked a nearby tree, then searched some nearby patches of flowering currant bush for Calliope Hummingbird. No luck there, but several other species were seen: Mountain Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow and Western Wood-Pewee. A repeated two-note trill baffled us for a while until we remembered the song of the Dark-eyed Junco; soon we saw one singing.

It’s right there in the green tree! No, no, the OTHER green tree. Thataway!
(Dan Seidner_6-10-18)

By this time it was mid-afternoon. We returned to McGill Campground for a few hours of conversation or reading as we watched local birds catch insects. A Western-wood Pewee was busy nest-building in the crook of a branch. It took us a while to figure out that the messy blob of vegetation was actually a nest, not just leaves stuck between branches.

Western Wood-Pewee, Mt. Piños (Grace Murayama 6-9-18)

After awakening around 6 am, we hit the road by 8 and drove over to Mt. Abel to visit “Shirley’s Seep,” named for the local birder who discovered it many years ago. In dry years, this small but permanent source of water, located at altitude 6940 ft., can attract thirsty birds from miles around.

Variable or Chalcedon Checkerspot male, Euphydryas chalcedona; flower probably Eriodictyon crassifolia, Mt. Piños (Grace Murayama 6-9-18)

Grinnell’s Beardtongue, Penstemon grinnellii; reliable at Shirley’s Seep, Mt. Abel (Roxy Seidner 6-10-18)

Here’s how to find it. From the “triangle” drive 5.1 miles (9 minutes) to Pine Mountain Club (golf course). Continue 2.6 miles (5 minutes) to Cerro Noroeste Rd. Turn left and 2.6 miles (6 minutes) to the seep, located at a 90° right bend in the road. 100 yds. past the seep is a pull-out spot; park there, not at the seep itself. To reach Campo Alto Campground at the top of Mt. Abel, continue 4.6 miles, bearing right at all intersections. Stop at the several pullouts along the way to check for soaring birds. You’ll eventually come to a large dirt parking lot with good birding – usually – all around.

Mt. Abel, by the way, is now called Cerro Noroeste, and Cerro Noroeste Rd. used to be named Hudson Ranch Rd. Some on-line maps may confuse the unwary.

Western Bluebird male above nest hole with food, Mt. Piños
(Dan Seidner 6-9-18)

The seep was slowly flowing. We had many of the same species (see list below) we’d been seeing elsewhere, but the Lawrence’s Goldfinches, Northern Flicker, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak and Cassin’s Finches were all new.

View of valley to west, Mt. Abel. See the Condor only 22 miles away?
(Dan Seidner 6-10-18)

In the far distance we saw a soaring raptor which I thought to be a Turkey Vulture because of its dihedral wing position (wingtips raised above the torso, forming a “V” shape). Lillian thought it to be a Condor, holding that the dihedral was minimal or absent. Neither of us could see any paleness on the underwing, but the bird was a loooong way away. This spot is about 30 miles due north of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, where at least one pair of Condors breeds (Hutton’s Bowl, Sespe Condor Cam). An adult Condor could cover that distance in about 30-45 minutes, so to see a Condor here is not at all fanciful.

Cassin’s Finch male, Mt. Abel (Roxy Seidner 6-10-18)

After an hour of watching small birds drink and leave, and dodging Violet-green Swallows racing up and down the road, we headed to the top of the mountain.

Male Purple Finch, Mt. Abel (Dan Seidner 6-10-18)

Snow Plant, Mt. Piños (Roxy Seidner 6-9-18)

At road’s end, about 8800 ft. altitude, we found a nice Snow Plant at the base of a very gnarly dead tree, but little else beyond the swallows, bluebirds, nuthatches and pewees we’d been seeing all along. No Clark’s Nutcrackers, a species we’ve previously seen nesting in the area.

On the way back down, while stopping at a pullout to scan for Condor, we found a beautiful Green-tailed Towhee just below us in the mountainside chaparral. Seen from above, and in full sunlight, they are a spectacular bird. This was probably my best-ever view of the bird, who even raised his crest for us while he sang his lovely song.

Green-tailed Towhee, crest still slightly erect and you can see that the tail truly is a shade of green; Mt-Abel (Dan Seidner 6-10-18)

The flowering and nesting at Mt. Piños and Cerro Noroeste should continue into early July. The irises at Iris Meadow will continue blooming, and perhaps Calliope Hummingbirds will eventually appear. It’s a nice place to camp (no water but clean pit toilets) and uncloudy nights are wonderful for star gazing & satellite spotting. 75% of campsites are now reservable, but campgrounds had plenty of spaces so you could probably just show up, as we did.

Northeastern view of Mt. Piños, 8,843 ft. high; 109 miles to horizon
(Shuttle Radar Topography Mission 2-16-00)

Mt. Pinos ranger district: 661-245-3731 ext. 0.  8-4:30 M – F

All campsites below: 877-444-6777. $20/night, $10/night with America the Beautiful or Golden Age Pass, $10 per extra car
McGill Campground: 73 sites, 54 reservable.
Mt. Piños Campground: 19 sites, 15 reservable.
Campo Alto Campground: 17 sites, 13 reservable.

Trip List All Triangle Overlook Iris Seep & McGill
June 9-11, 2018 Areas Area & Stream Meadow Mt. Abel Campgrd
California Quail 1 2
Band-tailed Pigeon 3 4 1 4
Eurasian Collared-Dove 3 1 1 1
Mourning Dove 2 2 3
White-throated Swift 1 20
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1
Turkey Vulture 1 1
Red-tailed Hawk 2 1 1
White-headed Woodpecker 2 1 2
Northern Flicker 1 1
Western Wood-Pewee 4 6 2 6 2
Ash-throated Flycatcher 1 1
Steller’s Jay 3 2 4 6
California Scrub-Jay 1 3
Clark’s Nutcracker 1 H
Common Raven 3 4 2 3
Violet-green Swallow 4 6 8 10 30
Mountain Chickadee 3 2 2 3
Bushtit 1 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 3 1 2 1
Pygmy Nuthatch 4 15 4 6 5
Brown Creeper 1 1
House Wren 1 2H
Western Bluebird 5 4 4 4 6 4
American Robin 2 1 1
California Thrasher 1 1
House Finch 1 4
Purple Finch 3 2 2 3
Cassin’s Finch 1 2
Lawrence’s Goldfinch 1 5
Green-tailed Towhee 2 2 2
Spotted Towhee 2 1 1
Chipping Sparrow 4 6 4 6 6
Fox Sparrow 3 1 2 2
Dark-eyed Junco 4 8 4 5 4
Orange-crowned Warbler 1 1
Western Tanager 1 2
Black-headed Grosbeak 1 1
Total 39 20 11 16 21 12
H = Heard
Triangle = Intersection of Cuddy Valley Rd. & Mt. Piños Rd. 12 miles W. of I-5
Overlook = Streamside area & trail between McGill & Mt. Piños campgrounds
Iris Meadow = Area around meadow at top of Mt. Piños Rd.
Shirley’s Seep = Roadside seep 2.6 miles up Cerro Noroeste Rd. from Mil Portrero Rd.
Mt. Abel Campground = End of Cerro Noroeste Rd. 4.6 miles past Shirley’s Seep
McGill Campground = Campground on Mt. Piños Rd. 5 miles from triangle
One Comment
  1. Paula Shuman permalink
    June 21, 2018 7:02 am

    This was wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to post fabulous pictures and great descriptions.


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