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09 - 12 September 1997

by Bill Brenner

Just got back from a week-long conference in Reno, NV, and I had a chance to do some birding in the area for a couple of days prior to the conference as well.  I must thank Andrew Donnelly and Martin Meyers for their helpful replies to my RFI's.  Especially, Martin Meyers, who lives in the area, was extremely helpful, sending me several email messages and then giving me great advice while I was out there.  He was great--I would never have seen all of the things I saw without his help.  Because my birding time was limited, I went to specific sites to try to find specific life birds.  But, I also saw lots of other stuff, just from being in such great habitat.  However, my list of Nevada desert- or scrub-type birds is non-existent, because I didn't spend any time in those areas near Reno at all.  Life birds are capitalized; the species list is at the end.

I was thrilled with the birding in the area.  During a phone conversation with Martin after my first day, I had commented that the overall numbers of birds seemed low, as though a lot of things had already migrated.  He asked if I had ever been birding in the Sierras before (no) and said that there just aren't that many birds there.  Maybe not, but even if quantity is a bit low compared to the coasts, quality is outstanding!

9 September

We had arrived in Reno well after midnight, but fortunately I was still on Eastern time, so getting up at 5AM was easy.  I had decided to go to a place called Ophir Creek that morning, which Martin had suggested as a good place to try for Hermit Warbler and Cassin's Vireo, as well as other Sierra mountain birds.  It's at the top of the pass on the Mt.  Rose highway heading southwest out of Reno, before Lake Tahoe, at about 8,000 feet.  The trail led southward along the west side of a huge meadow, along a small, rushing stream, and then up into the coniferous forest.  The morning was clear and cool (upper 40's F?), and, to this Easterner who lives (literally) about 5 feet above and a few hundred yards away from sea level, it was heaven.  Large flocks of Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos and Chipping Sparrows were the first and most conspicuous birds seen, and these flocks turned out to be common to abundant everywhere I birded in the mountains.  

Soon I also saw another mountain bird that I had seen only a few times before--Clark's Nutcracker, a great bird.  Flocks of small birds turned out to be juncos and sparrows every time, and I began to think I was too late in the season for any other migrants.  But, then I found a band of Mountain Chickadees, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers, and the birding got more exciting.  The first couple of troops had the same species mix, but a bit further along I came across a group with lots of warblers, including one with a flash of yellow.  Townsend's!  a beautiful male.  

Then, a seemingly bigger, slightly slower, grayer bird, that kept slipping out of view, but then flitted out to feed on a branch tip--immature HERMIT WARBLER!  I watched it feed for about a half hour, following the little troop of birds up the trail, thought they mustly stayed in the area of the sunny clearing where I had found them.  The flock turned out to have at least 3 different Townsend's Warblers, and lots of Audubon's, but I kept returning to the Hermit--it's so great to get long, leisurely looks at a bird you've never seen.

Eventually the birds did move off the trail and into the forest, and I left them.  And, although I walked around the area for another hour or so and saw other groups of chickadees and Audubon's warblers, I saw no other Townsend's or other migrants, and so I headed back to the car.  Since it was only about 11:00am, and still feeling happy with my success at finding the warbler, I decided to go spend the afternoon at Yuba Pass, a place I had intended to save for the following morning.

Yuba Pass is north of Truckee, CA, which meant a drive down to Lake Tahoe (scenic but kinda touristy, at least the little stretch of shoreline I drove along), then up to and through Truckee to get to Yuba Pass.  I got there about 12:30pm or so, after a few stops here and there--not exactly prime birding time of day.  But, the place was described as being fantastic for birding, and it was.

I parked in the lot at the top of the pass, the only person there.  The best area for woodpeckers was supposed to be the meadow north of the main road and west of the gravel road running north and south from the main road.  I headed in that direction, partly to check out the persistently repeated 'kipping" notes coming from a pine next to the road.  Turned out to be a striped juvenile Red Crossbill, only the second Red Crossbill I had ever seen, begging for food from the adult male he was with.  What a great start to the afternoon!  I spent the next 3 hours very slowly wandering/slogging through the wet meadow, sometimes sitting and just listening for long periods.  One calling woodpecker turned out to be a beautiful Red-breasted Sapsucker.  

The next, half an hour or so later, was a Williamson's Sapsucker, also only the second one I'd ever seen.  These beautiful birds foraged in the general area, allowing several excellent looks.  Other great birds, for me, included Northern Raven, Stellar's Jay, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Lincoln's Sparrow.  The area is terrific, and the afternoon was warm and sunny and resinous with pine fragrance--a perfect day.  I wandered back to the car about 3 or 3:30pm, had a leisurely snack (Rold Gold pretzels and warm diet coke--yum), and almost left for "home", but then decided to go back for another look.

I walked just a short way north along the gravel road, then crossed west just into the meadow and sat quietly on a big stump.  Soon, a Red-shafted Flicker flew in to one of the snags in front of me.  Another woodpecker looped past and landed a few minutes later--Red-breasted Sapsucker.  By this time, 4pm or so, woodpecker activity had seemed to pick up quite a bit compared to earlier in the afternoon.  Sure enough, only a few minutes later a Williamson's Sapsucker showed up as well, foraging in the trees out on the west edge of the meadow.  

Then, more woodpecker sounds, behind me--something digging and knocking in one of the big pines on the other side of the gravel road.  I had been trying to sit still for the past half hour or so, but I decided to get up and investigate.  I looked across and up into the closest big pine, and--WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKERS!  A male and female together.  I was across the road like a flash, and got to watch the male feeding and the female preening for as long as I cared to stay, right over my head.  My favorite woodpecker now, I think--not exactly colorful, but so classy.  They were still there when I left and drove back to Reno, very contentedly.

10 September

Taking Martin Meyer's advice, I headed early this morning for Donner Pass (yes, the famous place from history lessons).  Martin described it as the best, most scenic hiking in that part of the Sierras, and it sure was spectacular.  I was the only one there, once again, at 6:30 am.  It was cloudy and pretty cold, but the first part of the hike (the Pacific Crest Trail, going south from the pass) is a series of steep switchbacks through a talus slope, so I warmed up fast.  The first birds I saw were a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks!  Another species I have only ever seen once before.  This flock of 9 was flying away by the time I figured out what they were, but I got a chance to see another immature/female-type Pine Grosbeak well, a bit later on.  

Many Townsend's Solitaires were flitting and playing king-of-the-hill in the low trees on the slope, but I confess that my eyes were looking down, or ahead at the trail, most of the time.  My real hope, foolish though it was, was to see Mountain Quail.  The chance of seeing them was one of the main reasons I came here, since Martin said he had seen a covey of them at the top of the switchback area just two weeks before.  But, he also said I would be VERY lucky to actually see any.  Still, I was feeling hopeful.

There were no Mountain Quail at the top of the switchbacks (sigh) but I did surprise a Pika, which was good consolation, and also saw a nice MacGillivray's Warbler there.  The trail then led off for a couple of miles or so through terrific big old pines.  At one point, just past the ski lift, I surprised an immature Northern Goshawk which was sitting on a stump right next to the trail--the closest I've ever been to a goshawk.  I knew, but didn't quite realize, that they were so big!  Eventually came out, about 1/4 mile or so past Roller Pass, to a mountain crest with a stunning view to the north, east, and south.  I sat up there and ate my snack (blackberry pie, artificially flavored), and watched a mixed flock of Mountain Bluebirds and Audubon's Warblers feeding on insects on the windy summit.  A Band-tailed Pigeon flew past right next to me, and Clark's Nutcrackers would appear occasionally then move on.

On the way back down, I finally ran into what I had not seen at all on the way up (too cold??): a mixed flock of small birds.  And the very first bird in the group that I got my binoculars on--CASSIN'S VIREO!  Another lifer, and the other species I had come here hoping to see.  This look was not nearly so leisurely, as the birds moved on pretty rapidly, but I went on down the rest of the way feeling much more content.

Again, it was only about 10:30 in the morning when I got down to the parking lot at the bottom, and since I had the rest of the day, I decided to drive the 100 miles or so to Sacramento to see Yellow-billed Magpie, which I was told would be easy once I got there.  It was--I went to Del Paso Regional Park, to the nature trail behind the Children's Museum, and the loud, raucous squawking I heard as soon as I got out of the car turned out to be my first YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE.  They were great to watch, with that totally obvious yellow bill and eyering, not shy at all.  

But then I went wandering along the riverbank, and soon I saw what I was also hoping to see, and what is hopefully another life bird--OAK TITMOUSE; a pair of them were foraging in the huge oak that shelters the picnic area next to the pond.  I say "hopefully" because I wasn't, and still am not, entirely sure that it is the Oak Titmouse, and not the Juniper, that lives there.  To me, the birds looked just about as gray as the Juniper Titmice I have seen in New Mexico.  But, based on range, I don't think Juniper Titmouse lives in Sacramento.  

Anyway, the birding in this little section of the park was outstanding, and a very different mix of species than what I had been seeing that morning--Black Phoebe, Anna's Hummingbird, Bushtit, Wilson's Warbler, Acorn Woodpecker, Western Scrub-Jay, Western Bluebird, California Towhee.  I spent a couple of hours here just looking around, then headed back to Reno, having had a great 2 days of birding, feeling relaxed and happy.

12 September

Unexpectedly, I got in another afternoon of birding after all.  After a couple of days of lectures, etc., Jamie and I and an old friend we hadn't seen for a while decided to go hiking--their idea, but I didn't need much arm-twisting.  They didn't really know where they wanted to go, and had already seen Lake Tahoe, so I suggested going back to Donner Pass--the hiking there really is outstanding.  We got there in the early afternoon, and it was a sunny, warm day, in contrast to the cool, cloudy morning I had spent there a couple of days before.  We saw fewer birds overall, probably because of time of day, though mostly the same things that I had seen there previously.  We also hiked further, going south and east past Mt.  Lincoln before turning around.  

On the way back, I persuaded them to take the Mt.  Judah Loop, which seemed like it would only be a short side-detour.  Well, maybe not.  It was beautiful, and led us around and back and forth and eventually up to the top of Mt.  Judah, which had to be the best view of all, a 360-degree panorama.  Even an American Pipit foraging in the tundra-like vegetation at the summit.  But--it was not a short-cut, and by this time it was getting quite late, and we were supposed to be back for evening conference stuff, so we had to quick-step pretty rapidly down after that, and everyone got a bit more irritable when the trail ran into a gravel road and confused us for a bit.  

But, eventually we sorted it out, and made our way down to the switchbacks, with me still hopefully but fruitlessly scanning the trail ahead for quail.  And then, about 6pm or so, just as the trail ended at the very bottom into the parking lot, unbelievably, a round brown and gray bird exploded up from right in front of me and flew across the parking lot--MOUNTAIN QUAIL!!  Instantly I was almost surrounded by running or flying little quail as the startled covey took off across the parking lot and into cover.  I, and my friends, could hardly believe our eyes, or our luck!

Isn't birding awesome?

Back to Reno.  Very happy.  

Species List:

Canada Goose (Donner Lake)
Turkey Vulture (Ophir; Yuba)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Yuba)
Cooper's Hawk (Donner)
Northern Goshawk (Donner)
Red-tailed Hawk (Ophir; Yuba; Donner)
Golden Eagle (Ophir)
Gull sp. (Ring-billed? California?) (Donner Lake)
Band-tailed Pigeon (Donner)
Rock Dove (Reno, etc)
Mourning Dove (Sacramento)
Anna's Hummingbird (Sacramento)
Belted Kingfisher (Sacramento)
Acorn Woodpecker (Sacramento)
Red-breasted Sapsucker (Yuba)
Williamson's Sapsucker (Yuba)
Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker (Yuba; Donner)
Black Phoebe (Sacramento)
Empidonax sp. (Sacramento)
Black-billed Magpie (north of Reno)
Clark's Nutcracker (Ophir; Donner)
Stellar's Jay (Yuba; Donner)
Western Scrub-Jay (Sacramento)
Northern Raven (Yuba; Donner)
Mountain Chickadee (Ophir; Yuba; Donner)
OAK TITMOUSE (Sacramento)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Yuba; Donner)
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sacramento)
Brown Creeper (Ophir; Donner)
Bushtit (Sacramento)
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Donner)
Mountain Bluebird (Donner)
Western Bluebird (Sacramento)
Hermit Thrush (Donner)
American Robin (Donner)
Townsend's Solitaire (Donner)
American Pipit (Donner)
European Starling (Reno, etc)
Orange-crowned Warbler (Yuba; Donner)
Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler (Ophir; Donner; Yuba)
Townsend's Warbler (Ophir; Donner)
MacGillivray's Warbler (Donner)
Wilson's Warbler (Sacramento)
Chipping Sparrow (Ophir; Yuba; Donner)
Fox Sparrow (Donner)
Lincoln's Sparrow (Yuba)
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco (Ophir; Yuba; Donner)
Green-tailed Towhee (Donner)
California Towhee (Sacramento)
Brewer's Blackbird (Ophir; Donner; Sacramento)
Pine Grosbeak (Donner)
Red Crossbill (Yuba)
Pine Siskin (Donner)

Bill Benner
Glen Cove, NY