This section of the PCT is soul-destroying. It traverses the side, NOT the crest, of a ridge, in and out of every gully. You can see where you were half an hour ago. You can see where you'll be in half an hour, tantalizingly close on the other side of the gully. You can see every landmark in the valley ... for hours.
Leaving from 173 is actually pretty, and easy, if you're just looking for a stroll. I wouldn't through-hike the PCT exactly because of sections like this.
It was nice to find my cairns. I sometimes make these expecting to come back but this time actually made it.
This trail is not on my map nor in any of my Southern California hike books, yet it's one of the best trails in the Preserve (which, admittedly, is generally undeveloped. But still.)
You start at the Hole in the Wall picnic area, just uphill from the campground. Roads except the immediate access road are paved, and the access road is normally fine, although I was fishtailing a bit in the heaps of new gravel they just put down, but made it with no real trouble. There is a fairly clean pit toilet, and flush toilets a quarter-mile down the road at the visitor's center.
The Rings Loop, with its iron rings set into walls of volcanic tuff, is a lot of fun, and leads into Banshee Canyon, where cliffs of lava rock, full of holes, tower above you. I've done that one a couple of times. The Barber Peak Loop circles (duh) Barber Peak, which is the picturesque hunk of creamy tuff and chocolate lava rock that Banshee Canyon cuts through. It starts at the north end of the picnic area parking lot (it's also possible to start from the south but I think this way is easier to follow).
The trail is very rocky and at times degrades to just a rut, or to nothing, as it crosses the lower slopes of the peak and loops out into the creosote bush. There's an opportunity to explore caves in tuff. Though the trail itself is hard to see, brown metal Park Service wands have been conscientiously placed at regular intervals and are easy to follow. Looping around the peak to the north, one passes the junction with a trail leading up to Midhills Campground and turns south into a beautiful wash filled with shy Crissal Thrashers and Woodhouse's Western Scrub-Jays. To the immediate west is a peak with a massive buttress of the pale tuff. This looks like it was all produced in one colossal eruption.
Wild Horse Mesa Tuff and Hole-in-the-Wall:3
About 17.8 million years ago, a powerful eruption blasted outward from a volcanic center in the Woods Mountains in the Eastern Mojave. Propelled by the force of rapidly rising and expanding superheated gases, a ground-hugging cloud of ash and rock fragments spread out at near-supersonic speed across the countryside. Hot, suffocating ash buried shallow lakes and stands of trees. The remains of birds, mammals, and plants are preserved as fossils in the sediments below the ash layer. The May 18, 1980 lateral blast from Mount St. Helens was somewhat analogous. The deposits from three closely spaced, violent eruptions comprise the rock unit called the Wild Horse Mesa Tuff which forms the cliffs of Hole-in-the-Wall.http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/LivingWith/Vol
Um... yeah. Mount St. Helens. Say no more.
As well as a great geology trail, this is a great birding trail (it'll be better in spring), and full of interesting plants, including barrel cactus and juniper trees (again, probably very nice in spring with the flowers).
Proceeding through a broken rock dike out of the wash, one gets to a sign that says the parking lot is in one mile. I think that's only if you go back through the Rings Loop, which would be easy to do, as you walk right by Banshee Canyon. I went all the way around the peak and came back up the other way, which means you pass the visitor's center and walk up the road for a little ways. The hike is about six miles, and I highly recommend it.
So, to the Breeders' Cup:
Much better than last year. The track played much more fair and I actually got some winners!
Couple of observations:
Flashback ran OK in his comeback in the Damascus (on Saturday). He was second, while probably wanting to go farther than the 7 furlongs, and relaxed nicely. Neither Cacau nor Pirate's Pleasure was anywhere to be found in their common N1X on Friday.
London Bridge handled dirt in the Marathon. Ka-ching!
Outstrip, Asi Siempre's son, was best in the Juvenile Turf. Ka-ching!! The top three here, with Giovanni Boldini running second and Bobby's Kitten third, all ran very well. Wilshire Boulevard had a ton of trouble. Historically, winners of the juvenile turf races haven't gone on to do well. That should NOT be the case this year, as both races had strong fields and showcased strong performances.
Goldencents ran them off their feet in the Dirt Mile.
Chriselliam was definitely best in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Ka-ching!!! Testa Rossi made a good late move to be second. Several of these fillies should go on to be something special.
The Distaff was disappointing. Royal Delta ran poorly. I wonder if she's just gone a bit sour. Excuses are harder to find for the total non-performance of Princess of Sylmar; I keep expecting to hear she came up sick or hurt, but nothing has been reported. With those two not showing up, Beholder was able to totally dominate. There was criticism of Princess of Sylmar's connections for running her, but I completely disagree. The Breeders' Cup is the championship. If you want to be champion, and your horse is in good form and healthy, this is where you have to be.
The Juvenile Fillies was a disappointment too. Firstly, Secret Compass had to be euthanized. The only silver lining, and it's not much of one, is that her injury took place on the backstretch so hopefully not too many people had to see it. I know I didn't realize it had happened, on the TV broadcast, until the commentary mentioned it. When she went down, several others were interfered with and eased. She's a Tiger, my top pick, was setting fast fractions up front and was not troubled. Great, right? No! She drifted out just a little and was disqualified in favor of Ria Antonia. Personally I don't think she made enough contact with the other filly to be taken down. Anyway, she should be a good filly next year, but just like her big brother Smiling Tiger, I think she will prefer to go no farther than a mile.
My handicapping failed me in the Filly and Mare Turf, with my third choice, Dank, winning, while Laughing had reportedly been off her feed and didn't show her usual early speed. Tiz Flirtatious got in traffic trouble but probably didn't have enough anyway.
Things started to go better for me as Groupie Doll had to work hard, but had a ton of class to call upon in the Filly and Mare Sprint. Then Mizdirection beat the boys again in the Turf Sprint, with Reneesgotzip second (in a dead heat), as hoped. Groupie Doll and Mizdirection are about to sell at Fasig-Tipton. May they NOT go to Japan, where I will never be able to follow their foals!
In the Juvenile my handicapping was truly terrible, and Coolmore's Magician upset The Fugue in the Turf (poor Teaky struggled home second to last. Please, please can I buy this horse and send him to Richard Mandella to train?). But then things improved again as Secret Circle rallied bravely to take the Sprint. Wise Dan, like Groupie Doll, had to work hard, but remained dominant in the Mile for a second year in a row, probably crowning himself Horse of the Year again.
And then there was the stretch run of the Classic. Game On Dude was out of run by the stretch. He can carry his speed, and he's a game horse -- I remember the Big 'Cap where he was bounced around brutally in the stretch yet ran on to win. Yet he can't handle large fields with a lot of pace pressure. I wonder if he just gets too competitive and won't relax? Anyway, he tired, and Planteur wanted no part of the dirt, and Mucho Macho Man was on the lead, but here came the pretty white face of Will Take Charge... only to fall just a nose short on the wire, costing me the late Pick-3! Still, it was a great race by the top two, as well as third-place finisher, Magician's teammate Declaration of War. Palace Malice had a troubled trip.
Overall, despite some low spots, this was a better Breeders' Cup in my opinion than last year. But despite Santa Anita being my home track, it's time for a change of venue -- it's been ages since the championships were held at Belmont, so that's my vote.
The first race on Friday is just an allowance, but it features two of my fantasy stable horses. Cacau started out promising, but IMO has pretty much been ruined by bad training that hasn't taught him to rate. Pirate's Pleasure, on the other hand, gives me more hope. He also shows speed, and will have to avoid a duel, especially as he's coming off a layoff.
Golden State Juvenile Colts: Match race between Life Is a Joy and Tamarando
Golden State Juvenile Fillies: Match race between Cal Gal and Whatsallthedrama
Twilight Derby: Had trouble narrowing this down. Going with Gabriel Charles and Gervinho.
BC Marathon: Looks like Commander is the best in this field, but oddly, there is a lot of speed and he may have to avoid a duel. London Bridge comes from Europe, may have been facing tougher. Worldly comes off a career best.
BC Juvenile Turf: Outstrip is beautiful, talented, and the firstborn of a favorite mare of mine, Asi Siempre. If he's inherited her grit and determination, he will be tough here. Bobby's Kitten appears the best of the American horses. Don't sell Aotearoa short -- he actually owns the best time for a mile on firm turf in the race.
BC Dirt Mile: Couldn't narrow this one down either. Goldencents appears most accomplished, but draws the far outside and looks as though he may refuse to relax. Verrazano is very talented, but also drawn outside, and he's going to be retired after this for no good reason - BOO! Pants On Fire is ALSO outside and also has a strong chance. I have no clue.
BC Juvenile Fillies Turf: I would just like to own this entire field for Christmas. And I had to go five deep. My Conquestadory beat males, then survived a bad trip to remain undefeated, but she has the far outside. Both Testa Rossi and Sky Painter (the latter will be much better odds) are capable. The Irish filly Chriselliam has made a great impression and improved dramatically when stretched out to a middle distance last time, while the French filly Vorda comes in with a good record but has never tried a middle distance.
Obviously, I will be betting some of these races only on a limited basis...
BC Distaff: Match race between the champion Royal Delta and the Princess of Sylmar. Yes, three of the other mares in the six-horse field could also win. But I have to take a stand somewhere.
Then Arabians will run. Pretty!! Although I don't really approve of taking the world's best endurance horse and shortening it up to Thoroughbred distances.
Juvenile Turf Sprint: Love in the Desert, Toowindytohaulrox
Damascus: The return of my erstwhile Derby hope, Flashback!
Senator Ken Maddy: Ultrasonic is by Mizzen Mast and newly came from Europe to be trained by Bob Baffert. Camryn Kate steps up in class but appears capable.
BC Juvenile Fillies: She's a Tiger has to prove that unlike big brother Smiling Tiger she can get a middle distance. California filly Secret Compass and New York filly Sweet Reason appear to be the other top contenders (Artemis Agrotera, who beat Sweet Reason last time, wouldn't shock me, but she drew the rail).
BC Filly and Mare Turf: Why doesn't Laughing just get the lead AGAIN and laugh all the way to the wire? The only way I see this not happening is if Cal-bred Tiz Flirtatious comes and gets her late.
BC Filly and Mare Sprint: I think champion Groupie Doll can regroup and take this, but there are also two very game 7-furlong specialists in the field, Book Review and Dance to Bristol.
BC Turf Sprint: This one goes to the ladies. Reneesgotzip is the fastest early and Mizdirection is the strongest on this downhill turf course.
BC Juvenile: I'm not going with the recent maiden winners. We shall see if this is a mistake. In this rather slow group, I like We Miss Artie (who may or may not handle dirt) and the local colts Dance With Fate and Bond Holder. These guys are going to have to take it up a notch if they want to be in the Triple Crown next year against the likes of (hopefully) my colt Coastline!
BC Turf: Buffoon Eric Guillot has entered my old warrior Teaks North in here. How I wish I could buy this horse and give him to Richard Mandella to train. I doubt he has a shot. Who does have a shot is the British mare The Fugue, and also Point of Entry, who is coming off a layoff, but has tremendous ability. Big Blue Kitten is not without a chance, and Little Mike could steal it once again.
BC Sprint: Match race between tough customer Justin Phillip and lightly raced Secret Circle.
BC Mile: Lots of speed signed on, so it should set up perfectly for champion and Horse of the Year Wise Dan. But the Irish horse Olympic Glory should be gaining on him late.
BC Classic: Can Game On Dude do it this time? He's one of the best horses in training. He is in fantastic form. But he's unlikely to get a clear lead here. He can also win with a stalking trip in the clear. Trouble is, Moreno will have to send to have any shot of hitting the board, Fort Larned is an aggressive speed horse, and even the Irish horse Planteur has some early zip. I'd love to see the Dude win, but I don't think he's a single. Who can come and get him? I suspect it may be rapidly improving three-year-old Will Take Charge. I wouldn't totally rule out the gorgeous Flat Out either, but his last race was pretty weak.
Probably all wrong! But at least it'll be fun to watch.
Fall weather in the Sierras is generally warm (cold at night) and breezy with bright blue skies. That was what I hoped for when planning the trip. It wasn't, however, what we got, as another warm monsoon storm slimed its way up from the Gulf that week. As I drove up 395, it might easily have been six weeks previous.
Maybe partly due to Tioga Pass being closed for the giant Rim Fire, we had no trouble getting walk-in permits for Humphreys Basin, which was to have been the end point of our rained-out trip. We spent an afternoon at North Lake playing shuttle (in my car; Dad's car got a flat) to a guy with some terrible stomach complaint who had been out for a week and needed a ride down to the South Lake road, and then to a park ranger who had become lost, hiked out over something other than Lamarck Col, and needed a ride back up the hill. And it rained.
I need to stop claiming that first-day hikes are easy. I remember them as easy because I do them as day hikes. It is entirely different with a 40-pound pack. The hike up to Piute Pass is about 5 miles, about 2,000 feet, and set up for stock travel, with giant steps and lots of poop. It's a pretty hike, but it's not easy (although the pass itself does not add any difficulty).
On top, the wind blew very cold, black clouds were gathering, and the Tibetan vista of open tundra and lakes spread out on the far side of the pass, guarded by the giant citadel of Mt. Humphreys to the east. We went west over the tundra to Muriel Lake, found a campsite, and got in the tent (the big tent this time) in time to stay dry as the skies opened.
Something seemed ironic about this.
Anyway, we were able to eat dinner and take some pictures, and then it started to rain again. But the next morning it was clear, and the wind backed around so that for the rest of the trip a cold north wind brought the black clouds in.
We hiked cross-country to Marmot Lake, the Humphreys Lakes, Forlorn and Desolation Lakes (where there were chocolate-brown marmots with white noses). My search for Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finches was in vain, but there were other birds, such as Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows and a variety of warblers getting ready to head south. The open country, with few trees, makes navigation easy, but it is not flat, and our seven-mile hike and scramble left me tired. Coming back into camp, I saw the fleeing rear end of what turned out to be a White-Tailed Jackrabbit, an increasingly rare Great Basin species I had never even heard of.
Then it got cold and spattered rain.
In the night, I got up to find clear skies and a million stars reflecting, Lord of the Rings-esquely, from the lake.
The next day was my 44th birthday, and we climbed up to the Keyhole.
This geologically transient pass involves a steep tunnel in piled talus that you climb through to reach the other side.
Moving rather quickly because of the threatening black clouds, we climbed up a hill, then reached the Lost Lakes, a place of mysterious desolation. Huge blocks of talus, made up of many lovely varieties of rock including one that is a fine-grained pink with veins of smoky gray quartz crystals, surround the lakes. We hopped and scrambled around several lakes, then climbed up a steep section.
Something about these very high (in Sierras terms; about 12,500 feet), relatively barren (though there were juncos, and star columbines) places makes me afraid, but in a way that encourages me to go back and spend more time there. They seem to hold some secret, something that will only emerge in the quiet and alone. But we are always hurrying through because of the weather and our limited energy reserves.
We had climbed the Keyhole from the other direction when I was a kid, about 30 years ago, and there was much more snow then. Going up was a challenge. The approach is made up of steep talus with an occasional patch of evil scree, and not all the rocks, including hunks weighing as much as I do, are stable. I found the worst difficulties were psychological. The place itself is intimidating. The clouds were menacing. What if one of us got hurt? On the other hand, while "real" climbers hate it, I actually love climbing talus -- the variety of movements required, the total engagement, the feel of the rock.
We at last reached the Keyhole and looked through. The sun sparkled on the lake on the other side.
That may have been my best birthday ever. We got back in time to hide from the afternoon's cold spatter. The next day, it had all blown through and we had a typical lovely Sierras fall day. We hiked down, able to notice now the wonderful examples of glacial polish and chattermarks all along the east side of the pass, and the intense color of the fall aspens.
(THAT South Fork Pass. The one we crossed in the opposite direction maybe 15 years ago, that is extremely scary, and made me think I was definitely going to die).
Then there were some other high-altitude destinations planned which, as we shall see, are moot.
As well as my fear of the pass and questions as to why I ever agreed to go on the trip in the first place, there were various dramas, such as my cat Solstice becoming very ill (If your male cat is ever peeing outside the litterbox, INSIST on a urinalysis!), my getting pink-eye, threatening weather (it rained on me the first two days when I was car camping and was horribly hot and sticky the rest of the time, which made me get uncharacteristic blisters), schedule changes, stuff being forgotten...
We set off at last, and I guess since day hiking it in 2009 I had managed to forget that the day hike to Brainerd Lake is NOT easy. It's only five miles but over 2000 feet of elevation gain. In the dreadful sticky heat with a heavy pack on this sucked, especially because I made the mistake of trying to be all honorable and taking the hiker trail back from the overnight parking. Extra 2 miles!! If you hike from this trailhead, take the road!
There was a somewhat scary crossing of the North Fork, but I hopped over on rocks. More on this later.
So we (me and my dad and two of his friends) humped up to Brainerd Lake and set up camp. South Fork loomed horribly in my mind as charcoal-colored clouds built up overhead.
Some time during the night, it started to sprinkle. I was in my one-person Hilleberg, and my dad was in a bivy sack. We'd planned that he, or at least his gear, should come under cover if it rained. I called out asking if he wanted to come in. He didn't.
Rain came and went. The offer was repeated once or twice to no avail.
Rain started to pour (this may have been around 2 in the morning). I called, "Why don't you come in before you and all your stuff are wet?"
"No, then I would have to get up."
About 20 minutes later he crawled into the tent, with everything sopping wet, muttering "this is a disaster!"
Suffice to say my tent isn't big enough for two people, so it was a long rest of the night. At some point, I realized that the mountain was having its say, and we would have to hike out in the morning, especially since my down sleeping bag, and 100% of my dad's gear, were now wet. Warm monsoon rain could become nasty cold high up, and slick rock and old ice didn't sound good either. Since I really actually didn't want to cross South Fork again, I was less disappointed than I would normally be. And it's one of those philosophical things, anyway. The mountain gets the final word on whether humans are welcome on any given day or not. That day, the verdict was "not".
But the spectre of the pass was replaced by the spectre of the North Fork, which would no doubt be flooding by morning.
In the morning, we hiked out, along with a straggle of equally wet mountaineers who had all given up attempts on the Palisades, through incredible drifting fog like I've never seen in the Sierras before, and indeed, the stream was high, fast, turbulent, and terrifying. I managed to actually snivel with fear at the thought of crossing it. But we made it, going crab-wise.
Then we slunk wetly down to Jack's for corned beef hash, Obsidian Butte to collect rocks, and back to Santa Cruz. I spent a couple of days there birding (nothing super-special was seen), and now... it's back to work.
All those bloody 7- to 11-mile gym workouts for nothing! And the cat is still sick...
We're going back to the Sierras in September, come hell or high water, literally.
I've been obsessed with the "red mountains" for a while, ever since I turned a corner on the far side of Mono Pass a couple of years ago and was literally stopped in my tracks by the amazing red, gray, and black peaks on the horizon. Two years ago, my dad and I looked over at these mountains from a ridge above Pioneer Basin. Finally, I got to McGee Creek, and the red rocks that are the metamorphosed remnants of sandstones here before the modern Sierras rose.
The trip was also about birding. That started well, as a Black-Billed Magpie flew over the highway just as I left Lone Pine.
I was scared that the campsite would suck. I've had issues lately with people walking through my space, screaming kids, rude late-night partying, etc. I think I got the Forest Service campground mixed up with the RV park down the road. The official McGee Creek campground is idyllic. If you had someone loud next to you they would be annoying (we had NO one next to us), but the sites are well situated so that in general you shouldn't have anyone walking through, the view is beautiful, and there are hundreds of birds, especially Green-Tailed Towhees. We also heard a Common Poorwill and there was a Bullock's Oriole and lots of Cassin's Finches. Plus, there is running water and flush toilets!
On the first day I just set up and then walked up the road a ways -- saw a Calliope Hummingbird. My friends Christie and Lance showed up a while later. We had fun making dinner, drinking rye whiskey, and playing campsite bocce ball.
The next day was supposed to be my long hike. This was the part that didn't quite work out -- I had a bit too much whiskey the night before, but gamely staggered on up the trail, without my trekking poles, which I seem to have left in Lundy Canyon parking the previous week -- no big deal, I loathed those poles -- but although I hiked OK without them, I would soon need them. The trail goes up a beautiful sagebrush canyon which is currently an exuberant flower garden and also full of birds. Intriguing cross-country routes beckon. There are two trails up the sagebrush canyon, actually; the upper one is better; I tried both. The trail then joins back into one and turns left (southish) up another canyon, deep in the red rocks, also full of flowers, and featuring a beaver pond (I saw the lodge but not the beavers).
Soon thereafter, though, it enters my least favorite Sierras habitat: the Mosquito Zone, the conifers, where the trail is always steep with huge steps. There were plenty of mosquitoes, eating me alive, although I'm pretty much immune to their venom any more after years of large doses. I may have heard Mountain Quail, and may have seen Williamson's Sapsuckers, but any time I stopped the vampires were upon me, so I didn't do much birding along this stretch. After what seems like a long time, the trail turns off, with one branch going left to Grass Lake and Steelhead Lake and the other continuing further into the back country. I meant to go to Steelhead Lake but there was a deep, icy cold, and fast-moving creek crossing. I stepped into the water, but my feet were immediately in pain and hard to control, and by myself without trekking poles, I wussed out. (Christie and Lance later crossed this without incident. They are taller.) I went back via a loop that splits off to the right near the Grass Lake junction, and unfortunately didn't see any sign for a very intriguing backcountry trail that my map shows coming off said loop. Hopefully I just overlooked it. The loop rejoins the trail to return back through the red rocks canyon.
So I didn't get into the high country, although I had an OK training hike of 8 miles or so. The flowers were amazing, and in some conifers above the creek on the side of the sagebrush canyon, a Sooty Grouse was doing his "wonk... wonk... wonk...".
Trail maintenance in the area is fine, but the signage is minimal. People hiking to "the lake" without a map will probably be disappointed, since it's many miles to a lake, and you have to have a map to know where the trails marked by laconically labeled wooden signs actually go. I did OK with the National Geographic Mammoth area recreation map but the Harrison is probably more accurate.
I stopped at the trailhead to collect about as many red rocks as I could carry.
The next day, we packed up and went to Convict Lake, which has another view of gorgeous multi-colored mountains. I was looking for Sage Thrashers, but eBird was incorrect in this case (the birds may have been laying low since it was fairly busy by the time we got there). We walked around the lake, which is a nice stroll and probably fantastic for birds a little earlier in the year. I picked up a truly gigantic rock and lugged it back in my day pack. We went to look at a hot spring down in the valley and saw a baby Killdeer... so cute! (And another spot that looks great for Sage Thrashers, but no luck. Another magpie did fly over the road.)
Then: Jack's for second breakfast, Meadow Farms for smoked bacon, Schat's for a pecan pull-apart, and the long drive home.
Good things. Struggles. First, a rant:
The first field trip I went on was to see the Sierra Bighorns. Which we did! -- although in the form of really distant white dots with legs, but still.
Sierra Bighorns are highly endangered due to contact with domestic sheep -- they have no immunity to domestic sheep diseases. Even now, apparently much of this year's Desert Bighorn lamb crop has been lost due to pneumonia coming from domestic goats, which carry the disease.
So I get that we have to do a lot to keep this animal on the landscape. Breed some in captivity, fine. Radio-collar them, with some inevitable associated trauma, I get the point.
But the researcher leading the field trip, who basically knows every individual sheep, then starts staying some stuff that bugs me. I knew about this stuff from watching a documentary, but in person it had more impact.
Firstly, they track the genetics, and move individual sheep around if they think a gene pool is too small. I think that's a bit interfering. I'd really rather they hack... that's probably not the term when it's ungulates, gives rather the wrong impression... more and release them.
But more importantly, they kill any cougar that eats sheep and I have a HUGE, MAJOR problem with that.
For one thing, ethically. OK, cougars are not endangered, but we're still talking about taking a life -- taking a life because the animal ate its natural prey.
For another thing, logically. Killing sheep-eating cougars doesn't send any kind of deterrent message to other cats. It just creates a cougar population sink around every herd of sheep. Most cougars will eat them, so basically every one moving into a sheep area will be shot (if it can be caught). So you're just going to end up killing more and more cats, especially as the sheep population grows -- I hope they have a plan to let nature take its course when the sheep reach a certain number.
And, OK, ethically again, because it's playing God. On some level it's no different than the rednecks in the Rocky Mountain states setting out to kill all the wolves so that they can run livestock on public lands without having to ride herd and manage elk herds as domestic meat factories (I suspect they're also doing it because they're not allowed to shoot liberals, but moving on). It's saying who shall live and who shall die, and I just don't believe that we have the right to do that. To say, we like sheep better than we like cats. I definitely believe that we should save species that we have put in danger, but not this way. Again, I'd rather see more captive-bred releases, better conditioned for predator avoidance.
And then there was the whole conversation about whether it's ethical to pish (make noises at a bird so it will come close and let you see it). I'm not sure I have the energy to get into that one right now. I've seen birds harassed (with taped song, not with pishing), and I didn't approve, but I also don't really think it harms a bird to jump to the top of a bush and look at me. On the other hand, I can sometimes use pishing as a crutch, and that's something to watch out for.
I also think it's possible to over-think and over-ethicize (?) everything. OK, so many people don't give a fuck. That may not mean that those of us who do, have to become total bean-counters over every single issue. Birding and life are supposed to be fun!
My back is bothering me when I stand for long periods (i.e. more than 10 minutes or so). Being in pain makes it hard to watch common birds or go on beginner field trips where there is so much standing. I tend to be overly type-A. Start feeling like a failure if I'm not getting a year bird RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. I need to work on that, but having my back hurt is an obstacle. I loathe the idea of going to the doctor about it. I'm pretty sure it's just muscle spasms because it goes away as soon as I sit down. Prophylactic NSAIDs, I guess.
The best thing was seeing nesting Black-Backed Woodpeckers. This really, really black species matches the burned trunks of its habitat perfectly. It depends on fires. It doesn't seem to vocalize much. A silent black bird on a dead black tree -- except when the mother put her head in the nest hole and all the babies started to shrill for food! I propose lots more controlled burns to expand habitat for this bird.
First I did a field ornithology class at Joshua Tree. The first day was great, with a lot of great birds seen at Morongo and in the park. Unfortunately, when I got home I found out Solstice (I think) had diarrhea all over the floor and didn't really want food, so I was in a total panic, had insomnia, and didn't make it through much of the next day. Solstice, who had been begging for and receiving canned food, quickly recovered when returned to his regular diet and hasn't had any trouble since. I'd had insomnia Friday night too... very odd for me, and I think maybe I was nervous that someone whom I really have issues with would be attending the bird class. As it happened he didn't, but he WAS reportedly at the class a few weeks before, which I dropped out of in favor of the East Mojave field trip. So I dodged a bullet!
Monday was spent at the gym, packing, and closely observing the cats' pooping activity, which was normal.
Then I drove up to Midpines to stay with my sister for a night before the Great Owl Quest was to begin. It started well -- the second I stepped out of the car I heard a Black-Throated Gray Warbler, and then Zeke, my sister's very large and very blond Golden, collided with me at 40 miles an hour. I met her new dog, Holmes, who is much more of a gentleman, and her new horse, Sapphire, who is a beautiful black Warmblood.
The Owl Quest began with a fizzle as it took forever to drive from Midpines to the park's south entrance, the nest I found last winter was untenanted (and my notes on where to find it were much crappier than I had thought), and in short there were no owls of any kind at the Meadow Loop trailhead. Since it was late morning by that point, I headed off to hike the Chilnualna Falls trail.
This trail is a bit hard to find since the trailhead and the parking lot are separated by a stretch of road. Hike from the parking lot up the road and to the metal signs. Initially, the trail is steep and spectacular, with a huge falls reached by means of Middle Earth-esque stone steps. Of course, this area is extremely crowded most of the time. Farther up, the trail devolves into long, hot, forested switchbacks, where I found singing Nashville Warblers, to my surprise. Like I said, it was hot, and by the time I got to the falls I was really tired, and unable to make myself go up another switchback, which means that according to my hiking guide I missed the prettiest part. Oh well. Where I stopped there are granite slabs and the water rushes into a black gorge, but you can't see over into the gorge (unless you're really suicidal I guess), so the view of the falls really isn't all that special. I wouldn't recommend this hike past the lower falls (which are less than a mile out), but then I did apparently skip the best part.
Still hot, I checked into the 1879-era Wawona Hotel. This, I do recommend. There are no phones or TVs and wireless only in one area, it's quiet (at least at the beginning of the season like now), the staff are meticulously helpful, and the attached restaurant is very good, not cheap, but you get your money's worth.
Later I stood on a stile in the meadow, looking and listening from the beginning of dusk almost until dark. No owls of any kind!
The next day, I got up very early and hiked in the Mariposa Grove. This is beautiful, but you have to hike it very early or in the off season, because it's insanely crowded. There may have been good birds in the lower grove early, but there were annoying people already, so I took off for the upper loop trail.
And, at first, I was in tears of frustration. There were a ton of birds singing, but they were high up in the trees (massive sequoias and other conifers), and I couldn't identify most of the songs. I started to think I wouldn't add a single year bird at all.
I sat down and thought about the problem and realized that one issue was that I'd been assuming this Westside habitat would be basically the Angeles Crest with a few different birds. But it's not. (NO Violet-Green Swallows, for example... that weirded me out through the whole trip.) It is a new habitat for me so naturally I wouldn't know all the songs. And birds high up in trees are hard to see, obviously.
I started to pick out a specific song, "tree tree tree tree TREE-zee-ooo". OK, 50 feet up in a sequoia, sounds like a warbler. I found one just above my head and pished. It responded well enough to see it had a black throat. That narrowed him down to a Townsend's or Hermit Warbler. A little more pishing and I got a fleeting glance: Hermit.
When I next heard the song, I hypothesized it would be another Hermit, and was right. Similarly with the louder, full-throated Fox Sparrow song from near the ground. The year birds started to increase. MacGillivray's Warblers sang their burry song from deep in the mountain misery. I don't think I got every bird there by any means, but once I slowed down and thought about it, it became a successful day. The early start kept the temperatures low and the crowds away until the very end. I hiked the outer loop to Wawona Point and some of the inner loop. Since the trails are loops, they can be confusing, but in the sense of trying to do them all, not getting lost. I'm pretty sure I missed Pileated and Hairy Woodpeckers and Golden-Crowned Kinglets; I'd definitely bird there again.
I had dinner at the restaurant with my sister that night, walked the loop trail starting IN THE DARK the next morning and there were STILL no owls at all... beautiful Pacific Wren song and more warblers, but no owls.
It was warbler week. Overall, I had Yellow-Breasted Chat (at Morongo), Yellow (everywhere), Yellow-Rumped, Common Yellowthroat (funky Westside accent, sounds like an Ovenbird), Black-Throated Gray, Hermit, Nashville, Orange-Crowned Warblers all on territory, and a Wilson's Warbler passing through at Box Springs yesterday.
Then it was time for the Derby.
I made the mistake of falling for the hype on some horses I knew weren't really bred to go the distance. Granted, we didn't really know what Into Mischief or War Pass get would do; now I think we have a better idea that they won't route, although Revolutionary was an OK third. I knew More than Ready foals are usually milers and yet I fell for Verrazano anyway.
But I also had the sense to bet on Orb, who stormed home, got a little green late, then went about his business to a powerful win. I don't see anyone from the Derby coming back to beat him, and there's only one horse waiting in the wings, Departing, that I think is any good... but so many things can happen between now and the finish line of the Belmont Stakes.
Sunday, I went on a field trip to Box Springs, involving adorable feral burros, Black-Chinned and Rufous-Crowned Sparrows, and by the end of the day, I definitely feel like I sucked Spring Break Part 2 dry and need a couple of weeks to recover...
It's nice to bird with friends sometimes rather than Audubon trips or UCR field ornithology classes. You can make more dumb mistakes yet get less shit for them.
We went to Galileo first, which is this bizarre wannabe country club out in the middle of nowhere kind of near California City. I guess the "plan" is that eventually the country club will be surrounded by homes. I don't see this happening ever. However, there are trees, grass, and ponds, and so there are incredible birds every spring and fall. There wasn't anything too incredible Saturday -- too early -- but there were some fun birds, like a Prairie Falcon loudly scolding something (probably a Great Horned Owl), Gray Flycatchers, a bright male Western Tanager, etc..
Our lunch stop produced a Cackling Goose and a Wood Duck in a park in the horrible place that is Cal City. If you think Barstow is run-down or a bit sketchy, there are actually several other Mojave Desert towns that are orders of magnitude worse. Trona is the most apocalyptic, but California City
Then we went to Piute Ponds. These are sewer ponds, only the Air Force runs them. I don't know why the Air Force runs sewer ponds or why they are so extremely protective of them, but you have to have special permission in the form of a letter which you have to show upon demand. I'm told that if you can't show the letter they strafe you or something. We found some good birds there, including a Franklin's Gull, and ran into a friend of one of the people I was with (everybody knows everybody). They exchanged phone numbers in case someone saw something great.
No sooner had we exited the gate when the phone rang. It was the friend with a Solitary Sandpiper! Back we went to see it. I spent ages futilely chasing these last summer, so that was nice.
Away we went, and just got past the gate when the phone rang again. Now it was a Pectoral Sandpiper! Another good bird, which we went back to see.
He called a third time with a golden-plover, but by then we were too far away to come back. We went to a wash said to contain Le Conte's Thrashers. It was early afternoon and hot by this point, but we struggled through the sand, scaring up a cottontail, a coyote, and two black-tailed jackrabbits. Then, suddenly, I saw the birds! They had long tails which they flicked a lot, they looked gray, and they flew away in a straight line! I raced through the desert in the searing heat, trying to get a look. Finally, I spotted one under a bush and pointed it out to my friend...
It was a Sage Sparrow.
Sparrows are supposed to fly up into bushes and say "seet" when you chase them -- not run away like thrashers, flick their tails constantly, and drop their wingtips like thrushes! Sigh.
It was a great day anyway...
I doubt whether the Lexington produced any Derby contenders, as it was a longshot trifecta, probably more determined by who handled the polytrack than anything else. The filly Pure Fun was a disappointment and I'm not sure she would go to the Oaks after that.
The Santa Anita meet ended with my picking no winners on closing day! I think I'll end the racing blog experiment with that, since I was never able to spend enough time to really follow up on my analyses. I'll post about the big races, of course.