SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

Summer Lake to Cabin Lake and beyond

One night the storms were too bad even for the barn.

So I ran for the hills, an hour north to Cabin Lake, where there is no cabin and there is no lake. But there is the promise birds and better weather. Along the way I noticed some grounded hawks. Was it too windy for this Ferruginous Hawk to fly or had it just caught a snack?

I drove to a pretty remote location to enhance the birdsongs and minimize the gunshot noise.

At camp I heard Gray Flycatcher, Cassin’s Finch, Green-tailed Towhee, Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, and Chipping Sparrow. Since it had rained the night before, I didn’t bother checking out the new bird blinds, best viewing is when the weather is dry. Leaving Cabin Lake in the morning I got a glimpse of my favorite woodpecker of the area, the White-headed Woodpecker.

Along Cabin Lake Rd I saw the reliable Sagebrush Sparrows.

Brewer’s Sparrow.

Sage Thrashers.

Three Loggerhead Shrikes.

And I rescued the desert from these shitty balloons.

I stopped at Fort Rock State Park for White-throated Swifts, a Prairie Falcon, and I finally spotted the Barn Owl tucked in the cliff! Just above the most white-wash.


Later I noticed a swallow nest colony on the cliffs of a gravel pit area that looked like it was included in highway right-of-way so I pulled over to take a closer look. It was a swarm of Bank Swallows! County bird #124.

As I watched them a car pulled up beside me. Uh-oh. I explained I was admiring the Bank Swallow colony, and what turned out to be a very nice landowner told me to take all the pictures I wanted, he thought someone might be “messing with the dozer.” Oops.

Don’t mess with the dozer

A short drive north of Summer Lake, I pulled over at a site below a large cliff, and hoped for a certain sparrow. Immediately I saw a Black-throated Sparrow perched on a rock singing.

No way! It’s never that easy! Such a brilliant sparrow.

Another night with better weather I camped in the Fremont Forest on Winter Ridge. I was hoping for a nightjar or two. Sure enough, just as the sun set, “poor-will, poor-will, poor-will” of the Common Poorwill, followed by an unexpected “Peent!” of a Common Nighthawk! I’d picked an excellent camping spot.

On the last night, finally reunited with Tomas, we opted for a shower and a bed at the Lodge at Summer Lake. This, followed by the best pancakes in the morning at the Flyway Restaurant next door was the perfect way to end our trip!

Doing it for the pancakes and birds.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey