Sunday, June 26, 2016

Peak and Pine part 2

Selatosomus edwardsii.
Day 2 of the Mammoth Lakes trip with Sea and Sage was kickstarted early, by one of the largest click beetles I had ever seen. This ebon insect, Selatosomus edwardsii, was on the wall of the parking and seemed too drowsy to plan an escape. With bags packed we headed for Minaret Vista, the convening point for the group that morning. At Minaret Vista there was an incredible wealth of plant life, with species such as Jessica's stickseedsilvery lupineKing's sandwortwestern sweet-cicelyred elderberryWyoming paintbrush, barely visible buds of scarlet giliatapertip hawksbeard, and reflexed rockcress all in sight of a few feet. Hazy views of a male mountain bluebird through the morning dusk was appreciated, with the mountain mist only adding to the mystรจre of this impressive species. Photography of this bird through the harsh sun rays was tricky, but the opportunity was not lost!

King's sandwort, Eremogone kingii var. glabrescens.
Mountain bluebird, Sialia currucoides.

We headed off to Satcher Lake in the vicinity of Devil's Postpile, where I had my first real views of the intriguing douglas squirrel, a small species that, although it looked closer to a grey squirrel, was much more similar to a red squirrel in its proportions. Near a damp slough I found one of my wishlist plants, the unusual three-petal bedstraw. I had a personal interest in this plant because unlike hundreds of related species, it chooses to bear three instead of four petals in its inflorescence. Alongside this species I also found few-flowered spikerush, a native grass by the name of meadow barley, and a sad looking white-veined wintergreen. Unfortunately I messed up many of the photos at this site. Because I'm not mature and responsible I'll blame the darkness of 6am instead of myself!

I did get some passable photos of a singing Lincoln's sparrow however, which visited me while I was scoping out the lake shore. This was my first ever experience of this bird on its breeding territory, and it is amazing how different the bird looks and even acts in this environment. Unlike the reclusive, ground-hugging Lincoln's sparrows I encounter during the winter months back home, this sparrow was high in the branches, singing, and not afraid to show itself. Unfortunately It was not kind enough to stick around when I called the group over to see it however, so this experience will have to remain personal.

Three-petal bedstraw, Galium trifidum.
Few-flowered spikerush, Eleocharis quinqueflora.
Lincoln's sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii.
At the Rainbow Falls Trailhead I found a black pine boring beetle by the name of Hylastes sp. under a log in the car park. I shortly found pale monardellaAnderson's thistle, and milk kelloggia on this hike, as well as the flat bug Mezira pacifica and changeable phacelia. On mountain alder I encountered several white cottony formations on stems and leaves, and eventually the adult of the insect causing it, Psylla floccosa. I have encountered several psyllids before, including a few that form white fuzzy growths, but I did not know there was a native species in California with this behaviour. Very interesting.

When the forest shifted to open sagebrush I quickly found Jepson's willow, a low-growing shrub species. Nearby some group members turned up a great carabid beetle under a fallen log, Pterostichus lama, which completely dwarved all previous Pterostichus I have encountered in the past. At Rainbow Falls itself I located pink alumroot, which with its dainty powder-pink blooms was easily spotted on the cliff faces. This was alongside the vivid scarlet of bridge penstemon, not to mention the glorious pink inflorescence of mountain pride. Singles of black swift swooped in overhead, followed by a horde. It was a real pleasure to see these birds loop and glide before us, the real acrobats of the bird world.

A nearby flicker of Townsend's solitaire was an excellent sighting, only my second encounter with this mountain species. Here I was also able to confirm pink everlasting, a species I tentatively saw earlier but not in fully matured growth.

Jepson's willow, Salix jepsonii.
Pterostichus lama.
Mountain pride, Penstemon newberryi.
Black swift, Cypseloides niger.
On the return hike while grumbling about the lack of new butterflies I had a surprise encounter with Pacuvius duskywing, one of the rarer species in this region. This duskywing is virtually identical to the Persius duskywing, but the obvious association with host plant in this instance creates a strong case for Pacuvius, as does the hint of a white wing margin. Back in the forest I had my first encounter with the "Rocky Mountain" subspecies of white-breasted nuthatch, perhaps a future split worthy of species recognition. I also had California sulphur-winged grasshopper fleetingly along with one of my wishlist species, whiskerbrush, an uncommon pink wildflower with prickles of leaves along the stem.

Just before hitting the car I found a second wishlist plant, white hawkweed, which I snapped quickly to avoid the wrath of the trip leader for falling too far behind!

Pacuvius duskywing, Erynnis pacuvius.
"Rocky Mountain" white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta caroliniensis ssp. nelsoni.
Whiskerbrush, Leptosiphon ciliatus.
We then dropped by Devil's Postpile proper for lunch, where during this an American dipper was spotted flying over a stream nearby. With lunch promptly interrupted I dropped down to the stream where the bird flew across before my very eyes. With my camera on and raised, I snapped a reaction shot as it flew by, which is unfortunately blurry. Just as I lowered my camera and turned back the bird flew past again! That's when I made the decision to camp out that spot for the remainder of lunch break. Sadly it never returned. My lunch interruption was surely compensation with nearby sightings of  Sierra shooting starpearly everlastingalpine timothyMount Shasta sedge, and American bistort in nearby damp meadows.

Before leaving I made use of flash to pick up decent photos of Steller's jay, a species that I still have not managed to do justice!

Sierra shooting-star, Primula jeffreyi.
Alpine timothy, Phleum alpinum, alongside probable Mt. Shasta sedge,
Carex straminiformis.
Steller's jay, Cyanocitta stelleri.

On route back to Minaret Vista I noticed mountain jewelflower on the roadside heading up. The entry gate to this section of the park was home to a Vashti sphinx, which I snapped through the car window. This is only my third hawk moth species in California.

Window shot of Vashti sphinx, Sphinx vashti!

Back at Minaret Vista I rephotographed a few plants with the full midday sun, including one new tree for the trip, mountain hemlock. A large hoverfly, Blera scitula, was a welcome find on Calyptridium flowers. At this site I also had life views of two-banded checkered skipper, a small black and white butterfly that buzzed around with a most delicate flight style. Unfortunately at every instance I spotted one a sudden, violent gust of wind would rush through and blow them out of sight. This happened multiple times, as if on cue!

probable Jessica's stickseed, Hackelia micrantha.
The unusually low-growing red elderberry, Sambuca racemosa ssp. racemosa.
Western sweet-cicely, Osmorhiza occidentalis.
Blera scitula.
Record shot of two-banded checkered skipper, Pyrgus ruralis!
We then headed by Tom's Place, where the pinyon jay from 2 days earlier showed again, and quite well nonetheless. Heading up Rock Creek to Mosquito Flat we had a few friends in the car, such as an Eremocoris sp., and a stunning red-bellied clerid beetle. I failed to capture or photograph a small black ladybird with an apparently fuzzy grey pronotum and head, which I swear must have been the native western velvethead. That's going to be nearly impossible to find again!

Red-bellied clerid, Enoclerus sphegeus. Usually the red colouration
is only visible from underneath the beetle, hence the name.

Mosquito Flat itself soon showed the meaning of its name, with everyone's arms covered in mosquitos in the blistering heat of the midday sun, and at 10,200ft elevation nonetheless! I quickly found slender cinquefoil and Drummond's rockcress in the parking lot, along with an unusual cranefly with vestigial wings which I'm dying to identify beyond Tipula sp.! A fly-by of lustrous copper was a sight to behold, eventually settling on a native cinquefoil for close-up photos.

Tipula sp.
Lustrous copper, Lycaena cupreus.

Besides this, welcome species were tea-leaved willowVirginia strawberrymaiden blue-eyed Mary, and a few other mystery plants pending ID. This area has a lot of potential and one day I hope to revisit it,

A final check up at some sites along Rock Creek added curl-leaf mountain mahogany and Sierra juniper, pushing the day's ticks to 59, and raising the trip total to an incredible 156 new species! Although I had high hopes for trip I never expected that I would cross triple digits in only a few days!

Many, many thanks for Vic Leipzig and Steve Sosensky for the ride to Mammoth and the shared accommodation! One of my most memorable experiences in several years.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Peak and Pine part 1

Ellery Lake.
As much as I was used to early mornings, that didn't stop me feeling a little tired as the alarm rang at 4am. We quickly met up with the rest of the team, a total of 18 people, and the Sea & Sage Audubon Mammoth trip promptly commenced after a spiel by the trip leader, Vic Leipzig. We stopped by Ellery Lake first to check the shores for rosy finch, and the lake itself for other species. The lake was still shrouded in darkness, the dusky silhouette of the eastern mountains not quite ready to relinquish their midnight grasp.

Besides the stunning runrise we walked away from this remarkable scenery with distant views of goosander. Although for birders it was almost desolate, I personally had a bonus new plant, silverleaf phacelia, under my belt (really, the plant was not even knee height!).

Mountains to the S/SE of Ellery Lake, as seen through my phone. There are some interesting plants on that
mountain summit!
With that we moved on to Saddle Bag Lake. As soon who well appreciates mountain wilderness, the vista here was extraordinary. The silver lacing of remnant snowfall, resting against the looming hinterlands of misted hues is a sight to behold.

Around this landscape, a place that must be densely blanketed by heavy snowfall in the winter, was a residence, offering fishing tackle and other supplies. Did someone live out their life in this structure, through all 4 seasons?

Here I looked along the chipped, pale stature of whitebark pine, a high altitude specialty that can seemingly twist and curl its limbs at will. Unlike many pines the cones of this species are gentle and do not wage a prickly war against those who pick them up. But up here, where there is no need for competition, why would they?

Whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis.

Philosophical moments aside, here I had my first ever looks at higher altitude gems such as frosted buckwheatSierra willowsmall-flowered rockcresssmall-flowered horkelia, and elk thistle. Off in the distance we watched one of my most wanted birds, mountain bluebird, although it was not as bright as a male would have been. Along the dam we had both Belding's ground squirrel and yellow-bellied marmot, both showing very well!

An interesting experience was hearing and seeing rock wren. Although the mountain scree was not unusual habitat, I did not expect them to occur at such high altitudes. Before leaving we had excellent views of Cassin's finch, a mountain specialist although not my first. There are some excellent hiking trails at this site and as much as I'd have greatly loved to venture on them this time, we had a birding itinerary to follow.  For a future visit...

Frosted buckwheat, Eriogonum incanum, alongside the dark green
of small-flowered rockcress, Boechera paupercula, lower right.
Yellow-bellied marmot, Marmota flaviventris.
Cassin's finch, Haemorhous cassinii.
Our next call after reconvening near Mono Lake was the Mono Craters area. There are several crazy awesome endemic plants in this region but sadly there was no time to stop for them, although I ticked Mono Lake lupine from the car window! The Jeffrey pines in this area used to be amazing for black-backed woodpecker, perhaps my most wanted American bird, but it has been several years since they were reliable here. This unusual woodpecker is a specialist of burn areas, so once a burn area has recovered, the birds too have recovered...recovered their belongings and left, that is! An interesting scene was a vast ground cover of dwarf purple monkeyflower. Knowing what I did about plants I made a search for white forms, and soon found a couple. For some reason magenta flowers are more frequently affected by white variants than those bearing other colours.

My only tick from this stop was an inconspicuous native grass by the name of needle-and-thread.

Dwarf purple monkeyflower, Mimulus nanus. Yes those are grains of gravel
in the background!
"Albino" variant of Mimulus nanus.
The wispy strands of needle-and-thread, Stipa comata.
As birding here was not very lucrative, we headed straight down to the Tufa Reserve at Mono Lake proper. A fascinating site both visually, geologically, and biologically. On the shores I made sure to tick alkali fly, a small fly that swarmed enmasse on the shores, and danced in waving bands whenever anyone walked through their numbers. A few translucent critters gliding in the water were easily captured. This was the most exciting find so far, the endemic Mono Lake brine shrimp. While handling these creatures and avoiding salt water dropping on my camera of course my potential lifer sage thrasher had to pop up at the most awkward time possible. Luckily it kept still for a while, enough for me to put the brine shrimp back in the water, clean and put the box away, and switch camera lenses! The white balance on these rock formations did my head in though!

Alkali fly, Ephydra hians.
Mono Lake brine shrimp, Artemia monica
Sage thrasher, Oreoscoptes montanus.
On these shores I had very close looks at green-tailed towhee bumbling about on the tufa formations. I was also able to sneak up on one of the tiger beetles on the shoreline. These are apparently western tiger beetlesCicindela oregona. Out of all the unusual and interesting species in this region, I have somewhat struck out and found the common widespread species in the US instead! Oddly, this widespread species may be the rarest tiger beetle in this region. Argh. But a tick nonetheless.

I have probably seen it before but I made sure to photograph green rabbitbrushChrysothamnus viscidiflorus, this time. This is one of a series of late autumn flowering species. In summer all of these species and their related brethren are plain and generica, so its easy to overlook them.

Green-tailed towhee, Pipilo chlorurus.
Western tiger beetle, Cicindela oregona.
Remembering our lunch stop, Crestview Rest Station, to have a decent moth tally at the restroom area, I made sure to check around. The male side, anyway! Sure enough there were moths about, but not a mammoth amount (I'm sorry). The ones I have identified so far include Glena nigricariasagebrush girdle, and red girdle.

Glena nigricaria.
Sagebrush girdle, Plataea trilineata.
Red girdle, Caripeta aequaliaria.
Along Owens Lake Road nearby I started off with an interesting lupine. However I can't distinguish two particular species which both occur in the area. One option is the rare endemic Mono Lake lupine, Lupinus durantii. The other is the not as rare but still uncommon Brewster's lupine, L. brewsteri. The almighty plant bible, Jepson, has no answer on the issue. A struggle for the ages!

Difficult lupines aside, I found Serica anthracina, a small may beetle in a genus of more than 110 look-alikes, fortunately the only dark species in this region. Another interesting species at this location was woody-fruited evening primrose, an evening primrose that, unlike its very tall growing counterparts, is so short it appears to have no stem at all!

Mystery lupine.
The tiny may beetle, Serica anthracina.
Woody-fruited evening primrose, Oenothera xylocarpa.

Across the road we had a caterpillar of pandora pinemoth and a visual of chipping sparrow, before moving on to Inyo Craters. Here we combed the forest for further woodpeckers...or the birding group did, while I may have combed the floor for plants and species like clear-winged grasshopper instead. Yet I was the first person to spot and guide the group onto white-headed woodpecker, as well as the first hairy woodpecker at this site, so I did something right! Luckily I do well at birding by ear, which is invaluable for anyone trying to maintain birding alongside other fields of nature.

The hiking trail ended at one of the Inyo Craters itself, a deep...well, crater. At the bottom is a pool of vividly aquamarine water. Apparently there are multiple craters, and all are similar in composition. Very intriguing...I made sure to photograph a showy tobacco brush plant, a Ceanothus species with no relation to tobacco.

One such crater at Inyo Craters.
Tobacco brush, Ceanothus velutinus.
One highlight of this spot was yesterday's lifer of the cicada Okanagana bella singing very low to the ground at one of the namesake craters. I soon spotted it hiding in the shade of a sagebrush plant, and quickly jumped on it. Having a cicada that was not buried in the canopy of the taller pines was a novelty, and I was very pleased to have a chance to see this species up close! The cicada, though, was not so pleased. In fact it made such a horrific screech when I was handling it I might as well have been pulling its legs off. 

Okanagana bella.

On the return hike I noticed low mountain bedstraw beside the path, which I apparently missed on the walk up. A surprise highlight was seeing plumbeous vireo in the pine glades! This is a difficult bird to find and I count my blessings for seeing it so well! Once it started singing though we then realized that the "western tanager" we counted earlier was actually this bird. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the robin/grosbeak/tanager/vireo song complex.

The inconspicuous nature of low mountain bedstraw, Galium bifolium.
Plumbeous vireo, Vireo plumbeus. A classic example of
a nearly identical common and scientific name.
While Vic corralled the group and concluded the trip for the day I may have been temporarily distracted, chasing after a Cerambycid beetle that flew across the car park. Maybe. That's Monochamus obtusus. Although not as many ticks as yesterday, each one of those was worth it! What an amazing region, too.

Monochamus obtusus.

As always, you can view my sightings from this day on iNaturalist.