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Yuba Pass/Sierra Valley: for the birds

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  • debbie viess
    This fine Sierra birding site was crawling with birders as well as birds this past weekend. I encountered birding groups from Palo Alto, Mt. Diablo Audubon,
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 19, 2006
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      This fine Sierra birding site was crawling with
      birders as well as birds this past weekend. I
      encountered birding groups from Palo Alto, Mt. Diablo
      Audubon, Golden Gate Audubon and the Cornell sound
      recording class. I was in the area with the Bay Area
      Mycological Society, but my binocs never left my neck,
      even as I dug in the dirt after my primary prey (note
      to self: use lens caps when hunting mushrooms!).

      Happily, it looks to be another good year for the
      evening grosbeak in the Sierra. I saw two separate
      flocks of several birds each, graveling on the
      shoulder of Hwy. 49, between the SFSU field station
      and Yuba Pass. A number of these striking birds were
      also flycatching at Yuba Pass. This answers, in part,
      Bob Lewis' and my question of what the heck they eat,
      other than gravel. Although our direct observations of
      food gathering were limited, "The Birder's Handbook"
      had a trove of useful diet information. Apparently,
      insects are only taken during the breeding season.
      Their usual repast consists primarily of the seeds of
      trees and shrubs (that fat beak is not just for show),
      with juniper berries and pine nuts added when foraging
      in the western mountains. They are even purportedly
      fond of maple syrup!

      Cassin's finches were conspicuous at the Yuba Pass
      parking area, their rosy caps contrasting with the
      brown backs of their heads. White-headed woodpeckers
      and hairy woodpeckers were common, and some birders
      saw the Williamson's sapsucker in this area, too (they
      have bred here in the past). Glimpses of the
      marvelous, male Western tanager brightened the
      landscape, and my day.

      I managed to convince a group of mushrooming friends
      to accompany me into Sierra Valley on our last
      morning, where the birding is both easy and
      spectacular. Two pairs of sandhill cranes were
      observed from the road (one of which was again being
      attacked by red-winged blackbirds, like I observed
      last year). The stopped and peering presence of a pair
      of humans, who had been walking the dirt road in this
      magic valley, alerted us to a sage thrasher perched
      upon a rusted piece of farm equipment; woulda missed
      it, otherwise.

      A number of snipe flew up from the marsh grasses, and
      dozens and dozens of white-faced ibis alternately fed
      and preened in the grasses, or criss-crossed the sky
      in flight; the ibis were exquisite when fully lit by
      the sun, with the rich copper-red and green of their
      feathering taking on an irridescent sheen.
      Yellow-headed blackbirds cronked and fed among the
      cattails and rushes, and some coots were attended by
      their half-grown chicks. An unseen Virginia rail
      teased us with kiddicks from the marsh.

      Cliff swallows coursed over the tea-colored, heavily
      vegetated water under the steel bridge, and a number
      of medium to large fish conducted their territorial
      squabbles in the rocky shallows (binocs help to bring
      all of nature up close and personal).

      At this point, my mushrooming friends started hearing
      the call of the wild mushroom, so we made our exit. At
      the edge of the valley I saw at least one and possibly
      two ferruginous hawks, following along behind a piece
      of moving farm machinery, which was leaving a furry
      and/or chitinous tide of edibles in its wake. With a
      pack of antsy mushroomers following in my wake, we
      couldn't stop to observe more closely.

      All in all, a great, natural-history mountain
      experience. Hope you all had a fine weekend, too.

      Debbie Viess
      Oakland, CA
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