Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Birding Around Lake Isabella - Days 4-6

I did most of my packing the night before and got up at 6 AM to hit the road early on April 30. First, I called Caltrans (800-GAS-ROAD) for road conditions and found out that the highway 155 to Alta Sierra required chains only 4 miles above Lake Isabella. So much for a ride into the mountains! I would have to postpone that leg of the trip.

I decided instead to ride into the Mojave Desert on Kelso Valley Road. That gave me a 13 mile pedal to the turnoff from 178 and another 15 miles on Kelso Valley Road to my ultimate destination - Frog Springs. (Sudden schedule changes sure are easier with cars!) I made some brief stops along the way like the spot near the beginning of Kelso Valley, where I took the above photo of a seasonal wetland with egrets, herons, blackbirds, etc. The reflections of the mountains in the calm pools gave no warning of the afternoon conditions to come. After I passed the wetland and drier pastureland, I began to see Joshua Trees and other indications of the desert like cholla cactus. Large rocky peaks bordering wide open country of pasture and desert, with wildflowers of yellow and pink, made this a scenic ride. I passed a number of gruffly calling Cactus Wrens (BIGBY # 246) and Scott's Orioles (BIGBY # 247) (below) singing somewhat similarly to Western Meadowlarks. I was surprised at how many Black-throated Sparrows were singing from desert bushes and Rock Wren from most rocky areas. There was little traffic and no wind on this quiet stretch of road that was perfect for pedalling.

After a couple of short steep climbs (I don't remember such steep climbs from my car rides here) I got to the unpaved road to Frog Springs at mid morning and had to walk my bike over the last 1/4 mile of the sandy road. This spring was located between two rocky ridges and was surrounded by nicely preserved desert of Joshua trees and other native vegetation with large boulders and a nice variety of resident desert species of birds and lizards.

The spring consisted of a couple of pools of water and a small slow running stream surrounded by cottonwoods, willows and other trees. It was a magnet for migrating birds as well as a water source for local residents such as Mountain and California Quail. I could stand quietly and hear roadrunner, Black-throated Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow, Chukar (BIGBY # 248), the two quail species, Black-headed Grosbeak, Cassin's and Plumbeous Vireo (BIGBY # 249), and 7 species of migrating warblers like Hermit and Nashville. It was not as full of birds as I had seen in prior years in the spring, but after really "working" the area, I still found 5 species of Empidonax flycatchers, including Dusky Flycatcher (BIGBY # 250), Hammond's Flycatcher (BIGBY # 251), Gray Flycatcher (BIGBY # 252), and Willow Flycatcher (BIGBY # 253). The recordings on my Ipod helped lure these empids close and caused them to call and even sing, which made their ID much less difficult. Two additional desert breeders common around the spring were BIGBY # 254 Ladder-backed Woodpecker (looking much like a Nuttal's, but with single calls more like a Hairy and a series of calls more like a White-headed) and the little Costa's Hummingbird (BIGBY # 255). I birded here for at least three hours, searching all the trees and other vegetation near water; birds were coming in and out of the desert vegetation to the water and trees. No other people were there and the weather was warm but not hot. I didn't want to leave, but had other stops to make. I did note that motorcycles and other OHVs could drive right through the middle this desert oasis and was angered that the BLM allowed such disrespect for a fragile and wonderful place like this.

I rode back to the Kelso Valley Preserve - half way back to Highway 178. Kelso Valley Creek runs through this stretch of riparian habitat with adjacent desert and a rocky ridge. Canyon and Rock Wrens called from the rocky ridge as I went into the preserve on the other side of the road. Bullock's Orioles chattered and whistled, and and House Wrens gave their long bubbly song. My target species here was Brown-crested Flycatcher. I heard Ash-throated and saw another Myiarchus flycatcher that sounded different. I played my iPod recording of a Brown-crested and the bird shot toward me out of a cottonwood and started the excited vocalizations of a Brown-crested (BIGBY # 256). I saw many lizards here also and photographed the one pictured.

The ride back on Kelso Valley Road was windy and when I turned west onto 178, back to the Lake View Motel in Mountain Mesa, the wind was very strong right into my face. I struggled most of the way to Mountain Mesa. I was relieved to get to the Lake View Motel, which had a roomy living area and a separate kitchen/dining room. The owners were very attentive. I unloaded my bike and went to nearby market for some significant shopping for the next three days. My wife, Celeste, met me at the motel and we had dinner with Natalie and Ross Schaefer at a nearby restaurant. They had all come for the Kern River Valley Spring Nature Festival, in which we would participate on the weekend. After dinner, I washed a bunch of clothes since I would be at this motel for two nights, and prepared my bike for an early morning departure the next day.

On Saturday, May 1, I arose at 5:30 so I could get ready and ride to the Fay Ranch Road (nine miles) meeting place for the festival field trips. My wife would meet me there at 7:00 AM for the bicycle birding trip I led for the festival. A group of four of us road along Fay Ranch Road and on intersecting dirt side roads (my wife had brought our mountain bikes) to bird desert habitat with Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow and Phainopepla; riparian habitat with Willow Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, a singing Summer Tanager and Wood Duck; and grassland with Savannah Sparrow and Sora and Virginia Rails in a flooded section. The rails stalked, skulked and even swan their way toward my iPod till they were right next to us. No new BIGBY species, but having a field trip on bicycle was fun.

Next I pedalled over to Paul's Place where my wife and I got food for lunch and we ate at the nearby Kern River Preserve on the south fork of the Kern River, in Weldon. We ate at a picnic table on the lawn of the preserve headquarters where festival activities and displays occurred. A folk music group performed and Summer Tanagers called and hummingbirds and finches came to the feeders, including a Pine Siskin (pictured - BIGBY # 257) and the Black-chinned Hummingbird I photographed. I got my leader's free festival T-shirt (artwork by John Schmitt) and gave a workshop on green birding, surrounded by the cottonwoods and willows of the preserve. As I left the preserve I called out some blackbirds from a wet ditch near the entrance and a female Yellow-headed popped out of the reeds and weeds (BIGBY # 258)along with several Tricoloreds.

At the preserve, we had been sheltered by the thick trees, but once I turned south onto Highway 178, I again had a tough headwind to buck on my bike back to the motel in Mountain Mesa. It was a long slow six miles, and I was blown off the paved road onto the gravel shoulder twice! For better and for worse, you are certainly not as isolated from the elements on a bike. That evening we met with some other festival participants for a Mexican dinner and spent our second night at the Lake View Motel, where the owners had fresh brewed coffee and put fresh muffins on our doors in the morning!

I took Sunday, May 2 off from bicycle birding and spent the day with my wife, visiting some of the natural areas nearby. My bike was packed at the moptel, so that when she dropped me off back there in the afternoon I was ready to cycle the 12 1/2 miles to the Sierra Vista Motel in Wofford Heights. She drove home. Since there were no restaurants in Wofford Heights I went to a market and got supplies for the next day and a microwaveable dinner for that night. I wanted to get to bed early for my climb into the Greenhorns on Monday.  The motel's microwave and refrigerator were handy, but I missed the friendly presence of the owners from the last two Lake Isabella area motels. I found when I was on my bike I interacted more with motel manger/owners, store clerks, restaurant employees and other people who I encountered along the way, than I did when travelling in a car along the same route. Was it my loneliness on the road (I didn't feel lonely), or the novelty of my being in remote areas on my bike that sparked conversations? Or was I just travelling at a different pace that allowed me not only to take in more of my surroundings, but to interact with people more also? I enjoyed the change.

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