Monday, July 7, 2014

Road to the San Gabriels

Thanks to Dan Cooper I finally had a chance to see the glory of the San Gabriels for myself. I have heard many great things about this pristine mountain range, from birds to invertebrates, and I never thought the day would ever come. F,or the first time in ages perhaps I'll know how it feels to walk through the venerable pine forests.

We first dropped by Switzer Falls to listen to the morning birdsong. This may have been my first experience with white alders in the wild, a towering riparian tree that lays a gentle green shade over those who walk beside them. Here we met the bumbling grey furball that was the western grey squirrel, certainly for me a welcome sighting as it was my first encounter of this native squirrel species. These squirrels seem to be more tail than anything, but that certainly doesn't inhibit them from scaling the wispiest of tree branches.

Before hitting the next spot I made sure to grab some views of bush poppy, hairy yerba santa, and California cudweed, three plants that all welcomed the scrubby hillsides of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains. The fluttering shadow that is funereal duskywing made a brief appearance here, my first sighting of this dainty butterfly.

Western grey squirrel, Sciurus griseus.
Funereal duskywing, Erynnis funeralis.
With some very close albeit silhouetted views of Lawrence's goldfinch on the roadside, my first ever decent views of this often fleeting species, we headed to Charlton Flat. This site paid off immediately with close views of white-headed woodpecker, a specialist of high altitude pine forests. I am not aware of any other species of woodpecker in the world that has an entirely white head and a stark black body. Truly a stunning bird, even if it sounds almost identical to a hairy woodpecker!

Other highlights at this spot included a few plants, dense-flowered woollystar, the toxic poodle dog bush, woollypod milkweed, Jeffrey pine, the vivid red flowers of San Gabriel beardtongue, and Rydberg's horkelia. A bonus in the form of a fly-by American painted lady was another first for me, as was a great sighting of a sagebrush lizard along some of the fallen logs in the shadier areas of the wilderness.

White-headed woodpecker, Picoides albolarvatus.
Dense-flowered woollystar, Eriastrum densifolium.
Jeffrey pine, Pinus jeffreyi.
Before the afternoon hit us we made a final stop at Buckhorn Campground, where several plant species were quick to show their faces. Woodland pinedrops, sulphur and naked buckwheat, southern monardella, Heermann's lotus, Grinnell's beardtongue, western dwarf mistletoe, thimbleberry, and sugar pine were just a fraction of the amazing flora at this location. Down by the creek I was pleased to find western columbine, and even more pleased to find a stand of the rare lemon lily in all its lemon glory! This was not to mention a moth that seemed at home in the shady recesses of the pinelands, black-banded carpet, a small species that looked as if it were built with umber and soot. Fontana grasshopper taunted me from the car park, offering only the scarcest of views before cackling away into the depths of the forest.

Lemon lily, Lilium parryi.
Birding was silent, if only because the high-pitched seep notes of brown creeper were hard to detect. Purple finches seemed to be the most frequent bird here, with its mountain relative, Cassin's finch, remaining undetected. Mountain chickadee, hairy and white-headed woodpeckers, along with Merriam's chipmunk, all gave us fantastic views between the erratic stands of pines. With western wood-pewees throughout, we were finally prepared for the eventual dusky flycatcher, which we saw nesting in the boughs of willows. For a bird that is often dismissed, I couldn't help find it remarkable. As it dancced between the branches with fairy-like grace, I could not help wonder why anyone would dismiss such a bird just because of its colour. Oh well.

Dusky flycatcher, Empidonax oberholseri. Let's not speak of that branch!

I thanked Dan for his time and we headed back home to the Santa Monicas. It amazes me how so many birders experience places like this on such a regular basis. For me it will probably be the first and last time, at least for several years to come.