Mono Lake Bird Chautauqua 2012

Sometimes I go to the Mono Lake Bird Chautauqua. This is one year that I did go, with a friend. We left on 6/14 at 11:30 and arrived in Lee Vining around 6:30, having stopped a few times. We had a picnic lunch in a Groveland park. A young American Robin and its parents kept us entertained, and Ash-throated Flycatcher, Turkey Vulture, Acorn Woodpecker, Brewer’s Blackbird, Bushtit, and Lesser Goldfinch were also there. In the tree over the car, a Six-spotted Orbweaver guarded her golden egg sac.

We stopped at Nunatak to walk the trail to look for Pika, unsuccessfully. A couple of years ago, we could only get so far because of the snow, but this time we made it all the way around, with only a couple of small patches of snow to the sides. Caddisfly larvae looked like moving lumps of rotting vegetation in the water. We heard Clark’s Nutcracker call. We saw those in Lee Vining also, apparently low for this species.


After checking in, we tried to contact other friends and hooked up with three for dinner and met them at the reopened Mono Inn. We ate outside, and watched a House Wren come and go from her nest. We also saw and heard Red-breasted Sapsucker, Brewer’s Blackbird, Hairy Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker. Although it wasn’t raining where we were, we could see some lightning to the north.

KG and I drove to the dunes to explore after dark, and since we saw no lightning, made it all the way there. At the side of the road, we could hear Common Nighthawks call, and a bat fluttered by. At the dunes after dark, it was silent like it was last time we did this, except for one Killdeer. We found ants, and animal tracks, but nothing else, and no blooming evening primrose. Unlike a previous year, I saw no leftover molts from cicadas. We spent an hour there and got back to the motel at 10:40.

In the middle of the night, the siren that alerts volunteer firefighters went off twice, and some unknown birds in back of the lodge started chattering noisily around 4:00.

On Friday, the first official day, we took the bug trip and hiked from the visitors’ center on the Lee Vining Creek Trail for a very warm mile and 2.5 hours. Among the sightings was a banded-wing grasshopper with red wings, a velvet ant, a sawfly, Western Tiger Swallowtail, various predatory wasps, a lizard, Eurasian Collared Dove, Warbling Vireo, Mountain Chickadee, Violet-green Swallow, Bullock’s Oriole, Western Meadowlark, Green-tailed Towhee, Clark’s Nutcracker, Yellow Warbler, American Kestrel, Western Wood-Pewee, and Brewer’s Sparrow.

The weather seemed to be warmer than the forecast indicated. From Thursday to Sunday, the temperatures ranged from 50F at night to 99F.

In the afternoon, I took the chipmunks trip. We drove a short way to the area where Sherman traps had previously been set for this trip We found four Least Chipmunks, a Lodgepole Chipmunk, and a Belding’s Ground Squirrel, which promptly escaped by the wrong end of the trap. We drove a little farther to different habitat and other traps. We walked over a bridge. There, I heard Western Tanager but nothing new for the area.

There were two twilight trips scheduled after the big dinner. We ended up at County Park again, then drove country roads to listen for night birds. While we still had light, we found Bewick’s Wren, Wilson’s Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Avocet, Osprey, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe, and others.
The leader told us that Common Nighthawks have golden yellow eye shine, and Common Poorwills have red eye shine. There were too many cars in the caravan to see much in the road, but our car saw a Great Horned Owl silhouette, and we heard some Common Nighthawks along with booming. The road was dusty, and it was somewhat windy. We got back to the lodge after 10:00.

On Saturday, I went on a Lee Vining Canyon trip. We stopped at a few different places along 120, including two campgrounds. We saw a Common Nighthawk fly around in the daylight, and a House Wren had made a nest in a metal post with an open top. A couple of young birders had sharp eyes. New birds for my trip included Brown-headed Cowbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, Dark-eyed Junco, and American Dipper, which after a long period of standing on a rock, went underwater and brought insect larvae to its nest.

I had a long break after that, so I took it easy before the critter trap setting and talk on the art of seeing. At 5:00, I went out on the trap setting trip, which went to a slightly different location than in previous years. As expected, there were a lot of animal tracks in the sand. I got back at 6:30 and had an hour before the next event, so KG and I had veggie burgers at Mono Cone.

The Art of Seeing presentation was very intriguing, and partially based on an old book called Nature for its Own Sake; first studies in natural appearances (1898). After the talk, we took a brief walk around the visitors’ center building, as I’d heard a Common Nighthawk. Through the wind, I could hear booming, a courtship display performed by the male. This sound is produced by the air rushing through the wing feathers.

We decided to drive the dusty road that we’d traveled on Friday night, on our own. We didn’t hear anything, but saw bats and moths flying around.

At 10:00, KG spotted something up ahead, plop, plop, plop across the road. I jumped out and found a small spadefoot toad! It was very cooperative, probably thinking to itself that we couldn’t see it since it blended in with the dust so well. Having also seen one in a similar situation in Arizona, I picked it up to look at the bottom of its hind feet. It was cold, and didn’t squirm. There was a hard, gray “spade”, so that confirmed my guess.Apparently, the previous thunder showers fooled it into coming out.

We stopped for another critter fluttering in the road. It resembled a dragonfly, but a dragonfly wouldn’t be flying around at night. I looked closer and saw no stigma, and then the insect closed its wings over its back. It was an adult antlion! Apparently they don’t fly very well, but this one had a chunk out of one hind wing. We found another, intact one further on.

Bats continued to flutter by at the top of the headlight beams. Out of character, one fluttered to the ground, and continued to flutter. We noticed it had patterns on its wings. More jumping out by me; I tried to temporarily capture what turned out to be a Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora columbia gloveri). Of the big moths in California, I seem to see this genus most often. The moth had some wing damage, and it calmed down enough for us to get good looks at it.

Sunday was the last day, and we participated in another bug trip. We went to Lundy dam this time. I heard Rock Wren as we looked at mostly butterflies and other insects.

After packing and checking out, we stopped once more at Mono Cone, then headed to look at the American Dipper again. It took a while to find it preening on a ledge in the rock face. We could see the nictitating membrane as it flashed white when the bird closed it. The membrane is an inner eyelid that protects the dipper’s eye when under water.

We also topped at Nunatak again (still no Pika), and continued on to Saddleback Lake. The people at the restaurant said it was still early; flowers hadn’t started to bloom yet.

It was close to 4:30, so we stopped to check in at Tuolumne and unload. We took off at 6:10 for Olmstead Point (again for Pika, which some people said they’d seen on the way to Mono Lake).  I hadn’t been to the vista point, so we walked there. We could hear the distant ping of Mountain Quail, and a low booming call of Sooty Grouse. We stayed until close to 8:00 then headed back.

We decided to check out the nearby trails and started towards Dana Fork at 10:00. The smoke from the tent cabins drifted everywhere.  We only traveled about a mile total, not seeing or hearing much along that trail. At one spot near the water, two green beetles mated on conifer needles, and on the same tree, a small spider hung out. We turned around and decided to check out Tuolumne Meadows. It was seemingly colder over there; we walked partway up the trail leading to Soda Springs. It was also quiet with not much going on, so we left.

The night was cold, requiring two comforters and an extra clothing layer. Mostly American Robins sang during dawn chorus, but we also heard Red-breasted Nuthatch and Dark-eyed Junco. After breakfast at the camp restaurant, we packed up and checked out then returned to the meadows at 11:30. This time we entered the trail from the horse stables, a more interesting walk than the road. A bird foraging among the shrubs higher up on the sides of the trail puzzled us; it had a gray head, brown wings and tail, light breast with few dark splotches, markings on the face–possibly malar stripes and light color over the eyes, long tail, and a dark bill, longer and thinner than a seed eating bill. It reminded me of a California Towhee at first, but it wasn’t any adult bird I commonly see. It wasn’t that close, so it was difficult to see details.

We watched a few chipmunks and squirrels scamper, but we saw no marmots. We reached Parson’s Lodge and talked to the volunteer for a few minutes. Unfamiliar birds sang, and we figured out which one was Cassin’s Finch. Others remain a mystery. We took a couple of hours to explore there.

We made another stop at Olmstead Point, which had a lot of people around. We hadn’t noticed the small mimulus near the descent, and wondered if the nearby shrub was an elderberry. Along the road, we stopped a few times to listen, and stopped at T6 where we found some tiny Collinsia. The final Yosemite stop was at a wet meadow near Crane Flat. Corn lilies grow here, but it wasn’t as wet as the last trip. Bistort and cow parsnip joined the corn lilies. Several sawflies similar to the one we saw on the Lee Vining Creek Trail visited one cow parsnip flower head. I saw no bumble bees like we did last time we were here. A Chipping Sparrow sang nearby, but flitted off when I attempted to look with binoculars.

We stopped for gas in Oakdale, which was in the mid-90’s in temperature, and picked up some Mexican food from a nearby taqueria. It was in the 60’s when we arrived back at 8:00–it felt chilly.

Photos are here.