California — Day 4 (July 29): On to Yosemite!

(Note: I neglected to resize the photos in this post for proper internet viewing, so feel free to click on each photo to enlarge to see what the image ‘should’ look like)

After a particularly rough and barf-inducing pelagic the day before, our exhaustion led us to get off to a later start than most days on the morning of Day 4. Here we would make our way from our arrival point in the bay area, east to our base for the next two nights: Yosemite National Park.

First, however, were a couple of stops in the Central Valley, the fabled wine country of California. Leaving I-580 at Livermore, we headed south along Livermore Avenue and then Mines Road, stopping in front of a rather unassuming vineyard a few miles down. It didn’t take long for our highly anticipated target to appear here. In fact, we hadn’t even left the car, when the raucous vocalizations of Yellow-billed Magpies became audible from outside.

We would finish with 23 of these flashy birds at this stop, which ended up being one of my dad’s overall favorites of the entire trip.

Yellow-billed Magpies

A look at this bird’s flashy appearance in flight

After our successful stop at the winery, we returned to 580 and kept heading east. A stunning, immature Golden Eagle soon appeared to the north of the car, a long-awaited life bird.

Gradually, the road began to climb higher and higher, as it led forever up from the valley below. Some roads were precipitous and some were not, but they all had the same theme: we were going up!

Soon, signs began to read, ‘Yosemite this’, ‘Yosemite that’. The trail was getting warmer, and our excitement was building.

After passing through the park entrance, we made a beeline for Bridalveil Falls in the Yosemite Valley. Here we encountered large crowds of tourists enjoying the wondrous scenery the falls provided. We enjoyed the falls as well, but were also here on a second mission: swifts.

The Yosemite Valley is home to a nice breeding population of Black, Vaux’s, and White-throated Swifts, and at the time of our visit, after breeding has finished, they can generally be encountered anywhere throughout the valley, even miles away from breeding sites.

However, we were placing our bets on Bridalveil Falls, which didn’t take long to pay off. In the end, our visit produced 8 Black, 5 White-throated, 2 Vaux’s and 10 swift sp. While the number of unidentified swifts certainly confirmed the difficulty of identifying these tiny flying darts one hundred feet up and through the heat haze, we nevertheless escaped with our quarry, not to mention three of the four regularly-occurring North American swift species.

A look at Bridalveil Falls — sort of looks like a bridal veil, no?

From Bridalveil we made our way to Glacier Point, which contained an even larger crowd than our previous location. This was the classic Yosemite spot for Sooty Grouse, which are often seen unassumingly strutting around the parking lots, to the delight of the masses. Although we gave the perimeter of the lot a thorough inspection, no grouse were to be seen.

Pondering what to do, we decided to take what appeared to be a relatively deserted trail off to the left. Just a few yards from the trailhead, we found we had the place mostly to ourselves.

We started walking a ways, hoping to possibly get lucky with the grouse. Just a bit farther we encountered a nice mixed flock which included a few Mountain Chickadees, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and my life Townsend’s Solitaire.

Townsend’s Solitaire

After the flock passed we spent some more time sitting and pondering, which was getting more depressing as the amount of daylight faded. We finally concluded that it might be best to just leave the grouse for the next day, and head to the night’s lodging (which was still an hour away in White Wolf on the other side of the valley).

However, it seemed the grouse had other ideas. Just as I was finishing my grouse speech (“‘ya know, grouse usually go two ways. Either they’re as easy as pie, or they require a herculean effort to find”) I noticed a blob on a nearby log. It took less than a second for the pieces to align and for me to whisper “Sooty Grouse on the left,” although my dad still claims it was more of a strained yell. Whatever it was, we now had a female Sooty Grouse in plain view just yards away.

And it didn’t end there. As I was inching my way toward the gorgeous female Sooty still prominently perched in the open, a soft clucking sound was brought to my attention. Chicks!

It seemed Mrs. Grouse was not alone. As she conducted lookout duty on the log, four well-grown chicks fed in the grasses below, well-concealed by the vegetation, as well as their own plumage. And, well, to make a long story short, we spent the next hour (which will certainly go down as one of the best in my birding career), with this particularly obliging family of grouse.

Planting myself in a variety of stationary positions, I made my best effort to remain still to not stress either the female or the chicks. But to my surprise, they hardly payed me any mind, and went on with their business of foraging, dust bathing and preening, as if I was one of the many logs strewn about the forest floor.

Several times, I found myself surrounded with young grouse, with multiple individuals within arms reach. It was an incredible experience, the surprise and astonishment of which has still not worn off.

After a long day of birding, seeing a family of Sooty Grouse up close was certainly the icing on the cake. These denizens of Far Western montane forests put on a show to remember for myself and my dad.

After bidding the grouse farewell, we headed back up the trail, having drawn up the conclusion that the day had no chance of getting any better.

But just like the grouse, two stunning White-headed Woodpeckers at the edge of the trail had different ideas.

White-headed Woodpecker, a juvenile, carefully working the ins and outs of that pine cone.

The woodpeckers, followed by an ice cream and an awe-inspiring view of Half Dome and the valley, were the perfect endings to an already perfect day.

The magnificent Half Dome, as seen from Glacier Point.

After enjoying a nice evening vigil in beautiful White Wolf, which included a couple of gorgeous Western Tanagers, the real conclusion of the day came after an impeccable ‘thanksgiving feast’ prepared by the staff at White Wolf, which really hit the spot after a hard day’s work. 🙂

Mountain Chickadee, the fabled ‘Cheeseburger bird.’ This charismatic species is well-known to the staff at White Wolf.

-Alex

[eBird checklists]

Murrieta’s Well Winery

Bridalveil Falls

Glacier Point

White Wolf

More of the day’s photos can be viewed HERE.

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