Birding the West Slope: Highway 89

The Donner Party is associated with the lake that now bears the name of the doomed pioneer group: Donner Lake. Family groups from the Donner Party camped for the winter on the eastern shore of what was then called Truckee Lake.

The Donner family broke an axle and George Donner injured his hand while trying to make repairs on the family wagon and were forced to camp six miles away from Truckee Lake at Alder Creek.

No family suffered more than the Donner family. Out of the 16 members of the families of brothers George and Jacob Donner, only eight survived. Their family name is now immortalized in a lake (Donner Lake), a pass (Donner Pass), a state Park (the Donner Memorial State Park) and perhaps most ironically, their former campsite at Alder Creek is now named the Donner Camp Picnic Area.

If the Donner Party are hosting a picnic, I’ll take a raincheck!

This picnic area, by the side of Highway 89, was our first birding destination; a place for Grasshopper Sparrow to pick up some Sierra Nevadian lifers.

We arrived at 6:15 AM, the early birders gets the birds. We were the only ones in the parking lot and at this time in the morning, birds are the most vocal.

We started out on the trail with a wishlist of birds for this site: Cassin’s finch, white-headed woodpecker, calliope hummingbird, Brewer’s, chipping, and Vesper’s sparrow, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain bluebird, Wilson’s snipe, house wren, and green-tailed towhee.

Within the first hundred yards of the walk we heard a singing bird from a pine about 30 feet up. Grasshopper identified it as one of our target birds, the dapper green-tailed towhee!

After getting stunning looks at the towhee in great morning light, we headed down the trail and 20 yards later we checked another bird off the wishlist: a very vocal house wren.

Near the campsite of the Donner family, who camped about 15 feet above the meadow because of the heavy snowfall in the late fall of 1846, we saw other singing green-tailed towhees. The calls of mountain chickadee and western wood-pewee seemed to be the soundtrack of this site.

Further along the trail we had one of the highlights of the day, a stunning male mountain bluebird. We headed back towards the parking lot and we crossed a boardwalk over Alder Creek and we flushed a Wilson’s snipe. Another bird checked off our wishlist!

We headed north on Highway 89 and I wanted to find a very iconic mountain stream bird, the American Dipper and I knew that if we stopped at any stream running under the highway, we might have a chance to get dipper, with a little leg work of course. The first stream course that we crossed was Prosser Creek.

We parked in the pullout and headed to the creek. This looked like good habitat for American dipper. We scanned the rocks and water both upstream and down, no dipper. After we crossed under the Highway 89 bridge we encountered two very vocal spotted sandpipers. They came within five feet of our feet and acted as out “tour guides”. I suspect we were very near their nest, which is built on the ground in a depression, and were leading us away from their precious eggs.

A spotted sandpiper sussing us up!

What they really did was lead us upstream to an American dipper that was bobbing on the shore. Grasshopper got some good looks and then the dipper flew upstream.

Well we weren’t satisfied with just one look at a dipper so we headed north along Highway 89 and our next stop was the bridge over the Little Truckee River. We climbing under the bridge and on the other side was a cliff swallow nesting colony. The swallows exploded into the air!

The cliff swallow benefit from human made structures that they use as a place to secure their mud nests. The highway bridge over Little Truckee River was perfect. There was about 50 swallows in the air!

Downstream was a massive osprey nest with a osprey perched above. There may be young in the nest but it was hard to tell from our far away vantage point.

We continued to the end of Highway 89 at its junction with historic Highway 49 at the small town of Sierraville. We turned right and headed a short distance down Highway 49, where on a fence post, we had an incredible view of a bird we had only got a fleeting glimpse of before: Wilson’s snipe.

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