Sixty-one species sighted during audubon trip
Most winter birding trips head toward the Salton Sea or parts further south. Perverse as ever, we headed to the extreme northeastern tip of California and the 5,000-foot high plateau, around Alturas in Modoc County, hoping to see some of the visiting species from further north. Our leaders Ed Pandolfino and John Ranlett had been scouting the area since midweek and sent back an e-mail warning us to bring warm boots and clothing suitable for days when the temperature would stay in the single digits.
Saturday morning, at 7 a.m., nine of us gathered in the parking lot while Ed outlined the day’s itinerary that would take us further north and east into the Surprise Valley, the northwestern edge of the great basin, to look for raptors. We condensed into three vehicles and began our trek under threatening skies spitting snow over Cedar pass and down into Cedarville. We soon found the first of about 10 Ferruginous Hawks, on average our largest hawk with a red back and virtually snow white underneath.
A rough-legged hawk sat on a power pole. With feathers on its legs, this animal is also well-adapted to arctic exposure and is frequently identified by an almost white head that to Ed looked like a vanilla ice cream cone, an appropriate description on this day when a foot of snow covered everything.
A flock of horned larks caused us to turn onto a side road so that we could search among these beautiful scavengers for a longspur or snow bunting that might have wandered south and joined the flock.
Half-hidden by a knoll was a pair of golden eagles feasting on an unseen carcass along with a couple of ravens sharing the feast. Another golden and three bald eagles awaited their turn.
We returned to Cedarville to look at some bird feeders Ed and John had spotted earlier. The lesser and American goldfinches were joined by pine siskins who are suffering an irruptive year when they appear in unusual numbers. We managed to find a pair of Cassin’s finches but missed the redpolls we had hoped to see.
Large coveys of California quail had been appearing single file out from under bushes during our trip. But in Cedarville, Barney Koeger called out on the walky-talky that the road in back of us was virtually covered by quail! No wonder that there were so many fat Prairie Falcons.
Toward the end of the day, we headed north to Fort Bidwell to locate a rare relative of the golden-crowned sparrow, the white-throated sparrow. A pair of these birds had been located earlier and our leaders had sprinkled some birdseed along the road so we could view them. After a brief wait, they ventured out of the bush with some dark-eyed juncos. Ron Knaus felt that this was akin to chumming for pelagic birds while out on a ship.
The rain greeting us the next morning passed quickly for another great day. At the Modoc Wildlife refuge, 7,000 acres fed by the Pit River, we were enthralled by three hooded mergansers along with an assortment of geese and other ducks.
Driving to another part of the refuge, we spotted a gray Merlin sitting atop of a pole. This was a grateful addition to Brain’s life list. Later, we all got a lifer when a northern shrike appeared on a tree branch.
Watching hundreds of American robins feasting on juniper berries at Doris reservoir we posed while Gayle Carlsmith took a group picture near the conclusion of a wonderful winter birding trip where we saw 61 different species.
Walt Carnahan is president of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.
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