California Specialties Apr 21—29, 2008

Posted by Brad Schram

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Brad Schram

Brad Schram became fascinated with birds as a child in the mountains of California, the start of an enthusiasm that has modified and enriched his life. He has birded on all...

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The beauty of birds commands our attention. Like fine art, bird study provides self-evident rewards, the time spent requiring little justification. Experience with the birds informs and inspires us, granting joy even as we wish for more.

One morning's adventure to Mount Pinos in southwestern Kern County exemplified the adventure of birding. Over 8,800 feet at its peak, Mount Pinos provides mature yellow pine forests (predominantly Jeffrey Pine) and rugged scenery. It also holds many western montane species in its forests and thickets. Among these, the Green-tailed Towhee holds pride of place as arguably the flashiest—a gloriously patterned, painted bird.

Early morning light saturates color; what it did for a responsive pair of Green-tailed Towhees tempts overactive thesaurus use for adequate explanation. Suffice it to say that the scope image of a singing male caused sudden exclamation from more than one appreciative tour member! The strikingly-marked bird sang and postured in gray-green shrubs as Violet-green Swallows cavorted overhead while Mountain Quail called all around.

A Clark's Nutcracker we had been hearing forced itself on our attention by alighting within reasonable scoping distance. One of seven corvids seen on our tour, the nutcracker's personality matches the wild mountain habitats of its choosing. Bold, beautiful, intelligent, and engaging, the nutcracker decided we were less so, taking its leave before we were done with it.

Further upslope we encountered a memorable pair of White-headed Woodpeckers, perched together in a dead pine. They sat quietly as we enjoyed them through binoculars and spotting scope. Western Bluebirds cavorted nearby. Steller's Jays called and flew about. We remained fixed on the woodpeckers, marveling at the characteristic pattern and their tolerance of our movements.

Descending the mountain reluctantly, we retraced our steps down to the scrub-oak, pinon/juniper belt into the mountainous grasslands of Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Stopping at a vantage point granting thirty-plus mile views, we scanned the sky. Before long two California Condors swung into view a mile off! Before all the scopes were in place, we accounted for eight of the huge birds soaring over a distant hill and in and out of an intervening canyon. Western Meadowlarks sang in the grass nearby; California poppies bloomed at our feet—but we paid them less attention than they were due. A half-hour watching condors shot by too soon, and we had miles to go. But we stayed a bit longer, enjoying the spectacle before us. Rare, to be sure, but they are with us again in the wild. May it continue so!

A day started in the San Joaquin Valley, continued with exploration of Mount Pinos, followed by the vastness of condor country, ended in beauty on the cliffs at Shell Beach. We watched sea otters and Black Oystercatchers from the hotel; a Pacific sunset dazzled our seaside dinner. Our April 2008 California Specialties tour provided the more birders seek—color, form, song, and variety in magnificent natural landscapes. We look forward to more.