4,000 Year Old Tree and the Invisible Vireo

This summer I returned to the Eastern Sierras, the Owens Valley, and the White Mountains. I had two objectives for my visit:

  1. To finally head out to the White Mountains to hike among the 4,000 year old trees at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
  2. To search for the elusive plumbeous vireo and add it to my lifelist.

The bristlecone pines where the easier of the two objectives because they hadn’t gone anywhere since the time the Egyptian Pyramids where completed. The vireo was an altogether different story.

I lit out of Bishop  to the White Mountains early one morning, first heading south on 395 and then east at Lone Pine. The road to Bristlecone Pine is only open when the snow melts, which explains why I had never made it out on my Spring visits to the Eastern Sierras. About an hour later I arrived at 10,000 feet at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center.

The visitor center and grove are named after Dr. Edmund Schulman (1908-1958) who was an early pioneer of dendrochronology, which is the study of tree rings to determine past climatic conditions. Schulman was determined to find the oldest living trees by taking a core sample and counting the rings. In 1953, this search brought him to the White Mountains and the groves of Bristlecone Pine ( Pinus longaeva). He first took samples from one side of a drainage but then moved across the valley to the other side which consisted of more arid rocky dolomite soil of the eastern facing slope. Here in the grove that now bears his name he took a core sample of an old specimen. He returned to his camp and he started counting and counting and counting. He was amazed to count rings beyond the year 2046 BC! He had discovered the first tree that was over 4,000 years old.

A few years later and a few miles away from the Schulman Grove he discovered the Methuselah Tree, which is believed to 4,600 years old, the oldest living thing on planet Earth. The Methuselah Tree’s exact location is kept a secret to prevent vandalism.

Schulman’s work  and the work of other dendrochronogists have pieced together a continuous bristlecone tree chronology both of living and dead wood. This has provided information about climatic patterns over the last 11,500 years and has helped modern historian date ancient objects, such as Stonehenge, more accurately. Bristlecone pines have been called “the trees that re-wrote history”.

My second objective was to find a small gray bird at the very western edge of it’s range. I had tried to find this bird on many trips to the Eastern Sierras without success. But this time, with the help of ebird, I was able to find two locations around Mammoth Lakes where the vireo had recently been seen. The two  location were the Earthquake Fault Trail and the Inyo Craters.

On one afternoon I headed up to the Inyo Craters. The skies clouded over and ominous dark gray clouds rolled in from the northwest. A typical late afternoon Sierra thunder storm. The thunder and lighting was close and I aborted my search as I heard a vireo-like warble coming from the ridge. On my hike back to my car I was pelted with chick-pea sized hail. I was left with a memorable memory but without the plumbeous.

My second location was the Earthquake Trail. Instead of searching I decided to find a quiet sit spot snd just let the birds come to me.  I chose a stump that faced down hill into the pine forest. While I did not find what I had come to find, as often happens, I found something unsuspected: an active woodpecker nest cavity in a snag just down hill from my stump. It was the uncommon Williamson’s sapsucker, the woodpecker that Pete Dunne calls “The Beautiful Sapsucker”. So of course I did a spear about the finding.



Williamson’s sapsucker nest cavity at the Earthquake trail.

I never did find plumbeous vireo. This bird has become a juju bird for me. I guess it just gives me a reason to return to the Eastern Sierra to continue the search.

On Top Devils

Another visit and sketch of Devils Postpile but this time on top of the pile.

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