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.

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