California – Day 5 (July 30): Yosemite

apparent Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

After an action-packed and understandably tiring day on the 29th, we needed as much sleep as we could get in order to be ready to make the most out of our only full day in Yosemite.

However, Day 5 certainly started on a rather…interesting note, when on a midnight trip to the crapper, I heard some rather angry screaming and arguing coming from the cabin next door.

It took a while for my tired brain to register, but the words that were emitting from the neighbor’s abode sure sounded like a lot of profanity to me. The yelling (and associated profane language) continued on for a time, until at last I was able to fall back asleep (who knows how many hours they might have gone on for?).

When I awoke the next morning I was clearly not alone in my experience. Apparently, my dad had been kept up all night by the inane babble coming from next door. Now, I think we can all agree ‘all night’ is a bit of an exaggeration, especially because I could clearly hear my dad’s booming snores on several occasions.

Nevertheless, based on my dad’s experience, they must’ve gone on for some time. Allow me to take a second and ask, but how could two people possibly go on arguing ‘all night’? I mean, don’t they run out of things to say to each other? “You *&^%$$#! No you *&^%$$#! No you *&^%$$#!” All night…

Now, how could any day top such an…exhilarating experience? I suppose we were about to find out.

Emerging early from our cabin, we were quickly reminded of the altitude, as we were nipped at by 40 degree temps. White Wolf sits at around 8,000 feet, and that morning, we were headed even higher. Past 10,000 even. We were headed for Tioga Pass.

Now, allow me to shift gears and mention that my desire to see Pine Grosbeak has been one that has endured years of frustrating misses and heartbreak. Now I would finally have another chance at these beasts, after spending over a year outside their typical range.

Pine Grosbeak was certainly on my mind as we departed White Wolf, and still was around an hour later, when we reached our first location of the day.

The trail to Gaylor Lake sits just inside Yosemite National Park, right next to the Tioga Pass (Eastern) entrance to the park. Our task was to hike (climb) to Gaylor Lake, an exhausting march that takes one over 10,000 feet.

Oxygen is sparse at that altitude, and, for someone that endured his fourth lung surgery just a month before, is definitely at a premium.

Nevertheless, we were determined to give it a try, especially when one of my all-time most-wanted birds lay within reach.

Common Raven, Northern Flicker, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Steller’s Jay were all audible when we started our trek. After a hundred feet or so, two bulky finch-like birds flew across the trail, but not before one accidentally uttered the distinctive kidup call I had studied for years. Immediately, I had no doubt in my mind: these were Pine Grosbeaks! But where had they gone? It took a couple of minutes of frantically whacking through the brush to eventually breathe a sigh of relief.

In a small clearing lit by the early morning sunlight, I finally had the chance to enjoy two magnificent individuals of a species I had been yearning to see for years. I spent a minute (but what seemed like a second) watching two female-type Pine Grosbeaks feeding upon a log, before they flew off down the trail, never to be seen again.

As I returned to the trail, I met my dad with a big grin. My decision to not take any photos of the grosbeaks but to bask in the moment is one I still feel good about, although I yearn for the chance when I can study these beautiful birds at a more open and camera-friendly setting, such as a feeder.

As we climbed higher, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Mountain Chickadee were added to our day list in quick succession. It was also at this point that I noticed my first Clark’s Nutcracker, soaring majestically above.

Mountain Chickadee

At the top, we reveled in success at having completed the arduous climb, as well as enjoyed the magnificent view of the pass we were afforded.

A piece of the magnificent Tioga Pass (taken with an iPhone)

This high snowfield was also my only place for picking up a charismatic, but elusive member of this habitat type. It became readily apparent that the birding gods were smiling down on us when two Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (our major target here) flew by, calling.

More looks at Clark’s Nutcrackers were obtained at this point, and, in contrast to before, we were now looking down on many of the individuals that passed by.

Clark’s Nutcracker

On the way back down the path, we picked up our first Cassin’s Finch of the trip, a likely juvenile male.

From Tioga Pass, we made our way back towards White Wolf, first stopping at the scenic (and crowded) Tuolumne Meadows. However, in veering off from the foot traffic onto a less-walked trail, we were able to set the stage for our success.

Over the next thirty minutes, we enjoyed our first looks at Williamson’s Sapsucker and Dusky Flycatcher as well as a couple of striking ‘Red-shafted’ Northern Flickers and plenty of Brewer’s Blackbirds.

Mule Deer

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Dusky Flycatcher

After a brief stop at White Wolf to pick up an extra memory card, we were on the road again. We headed south towards our next stop: Tamarack Flat Campground.

Being a huge Wood-Warbler fan, my excitement over this stop is understandable, as it provided us with our best chance of the trip at Hermit Warbler, one of the last North American warblers I had yet to lay eyes on.

On the way in, the mixed pine and brushy habitat provided us with our first Lincoln’s Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhees and Nashville Warblers of the trip. Also seen was my life Hammond’s Flycatcher as well as a few more Duskies.

Once we reached the campground, it was clear we were where the action was. We had arrived at the precise moment when a mixed foraging flock was moving through, one that contained plenty of Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped and Nashville Warblers, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Warbling Vireo and Dark-eyed Junco.

Also contained in this overwhelming group was a stunning Hermit Warbler, another long-awaited life bird, foraging at the very tops of the surrounding pines.

The rest of the day was spent traveling to and from McGurk Meadow for a planned Great Gray Owl stake out. However, my dad didn’t feel comfortable standing in the middle of a meadow half a mile from the road (understandably so!), so we ditched the search in favor of catching an extra hour of sleep and avoiding any after dark terrors in the meadow. Oh well, there’s always a reason to come back…


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2 Responses to California – Day 5 (July 30): Yosemite

  1. Helen says:

    Great blog, Alex. I did not see it until today. You are such a great writer!

  2. Charlie says:

    Alex, I like your sense of humor re: the arguing residents of the nearby cabin. Glad that you got that Pine Grosbeak. Look for one at a location near you sometime soon.

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