Friday, June 24, 2016

Amount'in to Something

Yellow-backed spiny lizard, Sceloporus uniformis.
Since moving to OC I started delving into the local societies. My first mark was the Sea & Sage Audubon Society, the local chapter of the great birding organization. For me, basically the American equivalent of the RSPB.

The initial port of call, one which I make with any society, is quickly jumping to "field trips" and seeing what was on. Before I knew it I was up at 4am, waiting for my associates to arrive. Not too long ago I was sitting at my desk with dreamy eyes scouring over an itinerary of a grand trip to the mountain wilderness surrounding Mammoth Lakes. Throughout my life I had seen many amazing trips similar in description, but for one reason or another there was no chance to attend them. That changed.

24th June itself was not a trip day, but an earlier respite intended to accommodate the long 5 hour or so drive from OC up through the country of California. Luckily my associates, Vic Leipzig and Steve Sosensky, were avid birders, which meant some interesting stops enroute.

Our first stop was in the pleasant little community of Randsburg, in Kern County just off the 395. Here we looked for and found chukar which bumbled about in lazy flocks throughout the town outskirts. A series of large, imposing lizards peered down from over the rocks with spiny scales and beady eyes. These reptiles evaded our efforts to identify them through field guides, but eventually I learned they were yellow-backed spiny lizards. Before leaving this community I had also picked up the unusual desert willow and desert bird of paradise from the car window.

Desert willow, Chilopsis linearis.

Our next stop was the remains of the once vast Owen's Lake, where the remaining marshy habitat got me car window views of Nevada bulrush. Seeing a great quanity of American avocets was a fascinating experience given I had only seen single birds in the past, the most recent several years ago. At some vantage points while birding I sneaked in a look at plants nearby, giving me Parry's saltbush and greasewood. I was really hoping to get some dragonflies here as my California dragonfly experience is exceedingly low, but I struck out. This was more than compensated though by the spectacle of what must have been more than 100 of one of my greatest nemesis birds, the tricoloured wonder that was Wilson's phalarope. Although many were not at the peak of breeding plumage they were still a marvel to behold!

American avocet, Recurvirostra americana.
Wilson's phalarope, Phalaropus tricolor.

At a fishery near Blackrock we searched unsuccessfully for LeConte's thrasher. Here I had my first looks at an interesting ode by the name of 8-spotted skimmer, as well as the silvery leaves of the introduced Russian olive. The latter is a long-awaited tick, and very uncommon in California where it is overshadowed by the regular olive species.

We then checked out a spot along 5 Bridges Road for returning sand martins, where although we did not see them I scoped a new plant growing on the gravel beside the car in the form of annual turtleback.

8-spotted skimmer, Libellula forensis.
Russian olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia.
After this we soon homed in on Mammoth proper, but not before checking out Tom's Place. Here a white-ruffled creek slashed its way through an incredible landscape of open sage and distant, snowy mountains. Although birding was low, save semi-decent views of pinyon jay, it was an incredible location and I may have spent far too long observing flora than I should have. This foray got me long-anthered rush, two-color phacelia, tall buckwheat, woolly mule's earsBruneau mariposa lily, Sierra tansy-mustard, panicled bulrush, a good candidate for yellow willow, and the well-named chocolate drops. That is not ignoring the resplendent beauty of a green jewel beetle, likely Chrysobothrix nelsoni. I first spotted it from afar on a sprig of tall buckwheat, Eriogonum elatum, before the BCG (Bup. chasing game) commenced. Whenever I find one of these beetles they immediately take off as soon as I lock eyes on them. Can they tell that I've spotted them from a distance?

An interesting series of dark, pruinose aphids on buckwheat was certainly a new species for me, but given the gross lack of knowledge on this vast group it may never receive an ID. On a related note I found the native two-spotted ladybug, Adalia bipunctata, on water birch near the creek. This once common species is very rare in North America, besides Canada where it still flourishes. What a find!

Two-color phacelia, Phacelia bicolor.
Bruneau's mariposa lily, Calochortus bruneaunis.
Chocolate drops, Caulanthus pilosus.
The jewel beetle Chrysobothrix nelsoni.
Mystery aphids on Eriogonum elatum.

We then headed down to the promising site of Convict Lake, where somehow the only lifer I managed to pick up was Lemmon's willow! Perhaps some more time down by the lake would have helped.

Lemmon's willow, Salix lemmonii.

With the day coming to a close we hit Mammoth Creek Park in Mammoth Lakes itself, which with its extensive riparian was one of the most promising sites yet. Soon I had amassed several interesting plants, including more life ticks than I could handle. Those being: Pacific willow, aspen onion, carrotleaf biscuitroot, diffuse groundsmoke, Leichtlin's mariposa lily, mountain alder, slendertube skyrocket (what a great name!), pinyon goosefoot, grand collomia, star-flowered lily-of-the-valley, roundleaf snowberry, narrow-leaved mountain trumpet, orchard grass, springbank clover, Rydberg penstemon, cold desert phlox, tobacco brush, dwarf purple monkeyflower, long-stalked clover, and one of my wishlist plants: spurry buckwheat.

As fascinating as insect life was I only had two lifers in that department, the gall-making Aceria parapopuli which creates odd formations on aspen, and an abundance of the pine-loving cicada Okanagana bella which, try as I might, I could not get any looks at.

22 lifers in 1 hour is brilliant for a state I've lived in for several years already!

Woolly mule's ears, Wyethia mollis.
Aspen onion, Allium bisceptrum.
Leichtlin's mariposa lily, Calochortus leichtini.
Slendertube skyrocket, Ipomopsis tenuituba.
Grand collomia, Collomia grandiflora.
Orchard grass, Dactylis glomerata, unfortunately a notorious weed.
Spurry buckwheat, Eriogonum spergulinum.

With daylight slipping from our grasp we hit Mammoth Rock Trail. As we were surrounded by wilderness, we were halted by a strange, eerie sound that beat through the forest. For a while, silence, until again it resounded in a continuous stream of slow, echoing murmurs. Bwoh, bwoh, bwoh, bwoh, bwoh. And then again, for another while, silence.

Although the phantom calls were fleeting and only barely in the range of hearing, they had just enough presence to leave a resonant, beating echo in the ears. At times this echo felt louder than the real sound itself, which made for an interesting phenomenon. This extremely low frequently series of calls came from one of the real guardians of the mountain wilderness, the sooty grouse.

With some effort we worked together to place this vague, ethereal sound in a canopy of 100 trees. Eventually we narrowed it down to 3 adjacent trees, slightly isolated from the rest of the forest, and relentlessly scoured the branches. Soon 20 minutes had passed since first hearing this bird, and we were still out of luck. The bird was so close, yet still invisible! But after a little frustration we eventually we found it, cosied up in the canopy of a particular fir tree. The bird was much larger than I expected!. It was remarkable how long it took us to find it.

Sooty grouse, Dendragapus fuliginosus.
Before finishing for the day I made sure to pick out Fendler's meadow rue and pinemat manzanita before heading back to Mammoth Lakes. On some weedy roadside verges I located some feral populations of Rocky Mountain penstemon and ox-eye daisy of all things! The day ticks did not end until light had truly left the day, with a stunning yellow douglas fir borer and large counts of the moth Xanthorhoe defensaria, both visiting the lights outside our lodgings at Mountainback.

Yellow douglas fir borer, Centrodera spurca.
Xanthorhoe defensaria.

Only then, after amassing more than 50 lifers for the day, could I truly rest, and prepare for the real deal tomorrow morning.

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

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