Thursday, May 13, 2010
Into the Greenhorns - Day 7
This ten day bicycle-birding trip was way beyond anything I had done in the past. For example, I had never done a trip of over three days or over 200 miles before. On May 3, I got up to face the longest steepest climb I had ever pedalled on my bicycle - my first single climb of over 3,000 feet in elevation gain. I was set to cycle from just over 2,600 feet at Wofford Heights to over 6,000 feet at the summit of Highway 155, in just seven miles! There were posted grades of 13%. I had driven it in the past and had shifted to my lowest gear to avoid burning my brakes on the way down. Locals shook their heads when I told them I intended to cycle up to the summit at Alta Sierra. They lumped it together with the ride up to the lake from Bakersfield - sane people didn't ride their bikes on either road.
I got a good night's sleep and got up early for the climb since I was feeling a little intimidated not only about the amount of climb, but the short distance in which it was to be accomplished. I ate breakfast in my room and packed a range of clothes since the forecast was 80's at the lake, but there was snow on the ground where I was to be birding near the summit. I decided I would take my time and bird along the way as I climbed from the town of Wofford Heights, up through oak woodland, chaparral, and eventually into the conifers of the higher mountains.
Half-awake high school students were walking down the hill at 7 AM, as I was starting up the first less steep stretch. After I got through the cluster of homes the real climb began. As I pedalled uphill I could hear the "wacka, wacka" of Acorn Woodpeckers and the robin like song of the Black-headed Grosbeak urging me on. Pedalling uphill is great for listening to birds. (Downhill, however is not, with the air rushing through the helmet and by my ears - drowning out most vocalizations.)
Less than half way up I heard a Pygmy Owl whistle in the riparian woods in the canyon below me, along with other birds I had not heard in the prior three days around Lake Isabella such as Hutton's Vireo and Wrentit. My target species on the way up was Green-tailed Towhee which I was told could be found in the chaparral where the power lines cross the highway. After 4 locations that fit the description and no Green-taileds, I stopped playing the recording and concentrated on getting to the top. I had brief excitement from the song of Fox Sparrows (song sounds a lot like Green-tailed, to my ear) and saw several Nashville and MacGillivray's Warblers. I passed the 4,000 foot sign feeling fine and about the time I felt like I would never see the 5,000 foot sign I got to the top, at just over 6,000 feet. I had taken so much time, about 2 hours, that I was not really very tired from the climb. In the conifers on the way up I had heard calls and rattles of White-headed Woodpeckers, the "chickadee-dee-dee" of the Mountain Chickadee and the nasal "ank" of the Red-breasted Nuthatch (BIGBY ## 259, 260 and 261). Some Caltrans workers were talking at their vehicles by the pictured sign near the top when I arrived. One came over to say "Hi" and gave me info on the local roads.
I took the dirt forest service road that went north from the summit, toward Tiger Flat. It was closed due to snow, but I could pedal in for a ways before the snow covered the road. This was a great bird stop. Two of the first birds I saw were male and female Pileated Woodpeckers (BIGBY # 262)! I had not seen these in Kern County before and I had not expected them on my trip. They were very shy and I could not manage a photo, but I did take a picture of a hole they were working in a tree stump (above). In that same general area were Hermit Warbler, Purple and Cassin's Finch (BIGBY # 263), Brown Creeper, White-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Band-tailed Pigeon, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. After I came to big area of snow, I turned around and took the paved road south toward Shirley Meadows.
The road to Shirley Meadows was a very quiet and an easy uphill climb to the Alta Sierra Ski Resort at 7,000 feet. I passed large areas of snow in shaded areas in the trees with completely snow free slopes across the road in the sun. In one of the open sunny areas I heard a Green-tailed Towhee (left) (BIGBY # 264) call in some bushes near an overlook that looked down on area Highway 155 climbs through and the lake far below. I sat on a sun warmed granite boulder and ate some snacks and photographed the towhee. As I sat there enjoying things, a raptor went right over my head and toward the ridge on the other side of the highway. This large accipiter with fluffy white undertail and gray underparts was a Northern Goshawk (BIGBY # 265) - another unexpected find!
I finished the ride to Shirley Meadows (left), which was mostly covered with snow, and walked around there a bit. I had hoped for maybe a nutcracker near the top, but no luck. I did hear a singing Chipping Sparrow (BIGBY # 266) although its rattly buzzy vocalization is not much of a song to me (but to Mrs. Chipping I am sure it is wonderful). I got his photo (above) after chasing him around for awhile and headed back down. On the ride back to the summit I stopped because of a loud woodpecker drilling noise and saw a White-headed Woodpecker (below) drilling a large hole right next to a stuffed fabric owl decoy on a cabin still boarded up for the winter. I think that the owners got the phony owl to scare of the woodpeckers (see the metal patch over a prior hole), but the woodpecker was not impressed.
There was also a couple of Townsend's Solitaires on the way back to Highway 155. One gave a beautiful and complex song that I had forgotten; normally I have only heard their simple whistle call note. I took my time, stopping again at the overlook for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch. It was warm in the sun and the day was beautiful up in the Greenhorns. I took side roads on the descent on 155 and got back to Wofford Height in the mid afternoon, stopping a couple of times on the way down to rest my hands which were tired from braking and to cool off and adjust my brakes. The ride to Lake Isabella Motel was hot and not very birdy. I arrived at the motel at about 4 PM and, after unpacking, I went into town for dinner at a Vietnamese/Mexican Restaurant ("My Place" - not very Vietnamese (e.g. Chow Mein and Chop Suey!) but I had a good curried chicken soup) and then went grocery shopping for the next day's breakfast and ride, before retiring for the night.