Clark’s Nutcracker

Being a birder, I always keep an eye out for birds, even when hiking, and not birding, is my primary aim. One might argue that a birder really never stops birding. I like to select a bird species as “Bird of the Trip”. This could be an iconic species or it could be a common species showing interesting behavior. The Clark’s nutcracker hits both of these targets.

The Corvids (not Covid) were well represented at Lassen. Common ravens patrolled the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, Steller’s Jay were seen at most locations. While I do love seeing these species, I can see them from the deck of my cabin in Santa Cruz. One Corvid encounter was a nice surprise, a family group of Canada jays (formally gray jay) forging on the ground near the Lassen Trail monument. The Canada Jay is a species that I do not see very often because they only occur in far Northern California.

The Clark’s nutcracker is an interesting bird for many reasons. When it was first seen by western eyes during the Lewis and Clark expedition in August 1805, William Clark first described a bird as a woodpecker. He wrote in his journal on August 22 1805:

I saw to day [a] Bird of the woodpecker kind which fed on Pine burs it’s Bill and tale white the wings black every other part.

It is odd that this Corvid, now bears the name of a man who misidentified the nutcracker. This bird is more a cracker of nuts than a pecker of wood!

This hearty corvid is found in the western United States, Clark’s first sighting was in present day Idaho and the bird is found at high altitude from 3,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation. I always keep an ear and eye open when I’m at altitude in the west. I usually hear them before I see them.

This was the case as I heading up the trail to Bumpass Hell on my first hike in Lassen. Off to my right, over a deep ravine, I heard the raucous call of the Clark’s nutcracker. A pair of these pied crows crossed over the trail and alighted on a rocky cliff. They stayed in sight for a few minutes and then crested the rise and dropped over the hill.

On another day I hiked out to Terrace and Shadow Lakes. I sat on the shore of Shadow Lake to have lunch. From the lake I had a great view of Lassen Peak and it’s twin reflection in the calm, still waters.

After six months of shelter in place and distance-learning, the solitude and stillness of Shadow Lake was exactly what I needed. No technology, no screens, just pen and paper and a perspective to recreate. I sketched the peak of Lassen.

A sketch of Lassen Peak I did while relaxing at Shadow Lake. I thought of adding watercolor but I just left the ink work. Most of this sketch in done with a brush pen.

Soon the silence was broken and up the the way, I heard the call of Clark’s “woodpecker”. I was captivated as I watched a pair of Clark’s nutcrackers hawking over the lake, catching insects in their dark bills. I was astonished by the liquidity of their flight as they quickly changed course to catch an insect.

One nutcracker flew down to a short conifer near me. It looked around and then flew down to the shoreline and took a quick drink. The nutcracker repeated itself two more times before returning to hawking insects.

The work ethic of this bird should be then envy of any fourth grader (and everyone else). In a study conducted in Tioga Pass (east of Yosemite Valley) an adult nutcracker was estimated to cache 89,000 pine seeds and a juvenile buried 34,000 seeds. They prefer the seeds of white bark pines, which are very high in calories. Like the California scrub-jay, the nutcracker is a feathered gardener.

A quick nutcracker sketch in the visitor’s book of Cabin No. 4 at the Mill Creek Reseort.

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