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Family: The Gift of Dippers

To collect myself in nature I headed to South Yuba State Park on the famous Buttermilk Bend Trail.

This trail parallels the South Yuba River and nature loafers come here on mass to in the spring see the wild flowers. The lupine where on show on this April weekday. The most prominent species was spider lupine (Lupninas benthamii).

The Buttermilk Bend Trail with it’s wildflower lined trail that parallels the South Yuba River.

I headed down the two mile, there-and-back trail, looking down at the river with it’s white water and I thought about one bird: American dipper. It was only a matter of time before I saw or heard one.

As I was about a mile in, I heard the joyous song of America’s only aquatic songbird, rising up from the river. A dipper was here and I looked for the closest trail down to the river.

At the riverside I spotted a tightly woven tangle constructed on a riverside boulder with a trail of white washed carpet at its entrance. It had the appearance of a sweat lodge than a nest.

A riverside dipper nest on the Yuba River.

Within a few minutes an adult flew in to the nest and reappeared shortly after. This adult was perched on a rock directly across from the nest, dipping up and down. It’s song was loud enough to be heard above the roar of the rapids. Two juvenile birds flew in and followed the adult around as it foraged among the river rocks.

Not a dead-beat dad. A dipper with some food for it’s two fledglings.
This is how a juvenile dipper says, “FEED ME!”

An indigo brush pen sketch of a bird that always puts a smile on my face (and I sure need that now). This is also my favorite quote about the dipper from John Muir.

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Santa Cruz County Birding

I’ve never been a huge county birder. County birding is keeping track of how many species seen within the boundaries of a single county.

County lines are a purely human made boundary that birds fly over but it is a fun challenge to try to see as many species in a chosen county. The three counties that I focus on are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. I set the modest goal of seeing 200 species in each of the three county. Over the past year and a half I have tallied over 200 in each county.

But for Santa Cruz I wanted to see if I could become a member of the Santa Cruz Bird Club’s “300 Club”. To reach 200 took awhile and I knew to reach 300 species in Santa Cruz County would take time, persistence, patience, and luck. On the Martin Luther King Jr. three day weekend I thought I would attempt to add few birds to my Santa Cruz County list.

Now these birds were not especially rare nor were any of these lifer birds for me but they had somehow evaded my binoculars in the 831 area code. There are: snowy plover, snow goose, blue-winged teal, and American dipper.

I started my search at the very southern edge of Santa Cruz County at Pajaro Dunes. Pajaro Dunes is a private resort housing development. When I was growing up my family used to rent a house for a holiday so I have been familiar with the area from a early age. The development is gracious enough to allow access to birders.

Once I passed through the security gate I headed to the end of the road near the Pajaro river mouth after first checking the slough near the fire station for the rare long-tailed duck but the bird had flown a few days earlier and had not been seen again.

I wandered across the dunes toward the ocean looking for the small cryptic dune-plover. There were plenty of sanderlings running up and back with the tide. I checked all the flocks but no snowy plovers. I wondered how far down the beach I’d have to walk before I spotted the snowies.

I briefly checked out the backlit gull flock at the river mouth, just south of the river was Monterey County. I turned back and started walking north along the beach in Santa Cruz County. That’s when I spotted ten roosting snowy plovers which I must have walked right past.

This snowy plover is sporting jewelry. These are colored bands which helps researchers identify each individual plover. Snowy plovers are a threatened species because of habitat destruction and intensive use of their nesting grounds. Snowy ploverspopulations are declining with a recent survey estimating the total population of the Pacific Coast as 2,900.

My next stop was Struve Slough, just north of Highway One. This slough in Watsonville is a great winter hotspot for waterfowl. The waters were full of ducks, geese, and herons, but I was looking for five white snow geese. In the Central Valley, it is possible to see thousands and thousands of snow, Ross’s, and greater white-fronted geese in places like Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. But on the Santa Cruz County Coast, snow geese are a relatively rare find.

The snow geese stood out like five shining stars among the surrounding Canada geese and ducks. Another county bird was mind! Now it was time to head east to an birding hotspot: Pinto Lake.

My main target at Pinto Lake was a duck I had overlooked on previous visits. This is the blue-winged teal. Without too much of an effort I found a drake and duck.

Male and female blue-winged teal at Pinto Lake. The much larger male gadwall provides an interesting size comparison.

The final bird on my county wish list was turning into a nemesis bird for me. I had seen this bird many years ago flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River but it is has not seen on this river a while. So I headed up the San Lorenzo Valley. (I had not added this bird to my list because I have no record of the time I saw the dipper).

I was headed towards Ferndell Falls at the confluence of Zayante and Bean Creeks. This has been the American dipper hotspot in Santa Cruz County for the past ten years or so. But as hard as I tried, looking up Zayante and Bean Creeks, on over three visits, I was not able locate a single dipper. Nobody said county birding would be easy, in fact it can be a form of madness!! It just makes me even more determined to add this nemesis bird to my county list!

A nice consolation on my dipper search of Zayante Creek was seeing the world’s most beautiful duck in morning light. A wood duck pair.
I have searched for American dipper on about ten separate occasions since last summer. Maybe the 11th time’s a charm. This spread was about my July expedition up the San Lorenzo River in search of former dipper sites. The dipper is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because they prefer clear, clean streams and rivers. This is a sign that San Lorenzo is not so pure.

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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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Me and a Dipper

I came down to the valley to sketch the monolith El Capitain but instead I stopped at the banks of the Merced River, Bridelveil Falls falling silencing across the valley and I sketched a dipper.

It says a lot about the American dipper that John Muir devoted an entire chapter of The Mountains of California to this small, drab bird. The water-ouzel, as the dipper was known then, rewards the observer with the amount of time put in by simply sitting down on the river bank and watching.

The dipper is seldom still, making sketching a challenging yet exhilarating experience. Just when you start one sketch you stop and restart because the dipper has disappeared under the river, appearing again, perched on a submerged rock, making the bird appear to be standing on water. And the dipper never just perches. Like it’s name implies, it it constantly dipping it’s body up and down.

As so I passed part of my morning in Yosemite Valley, with my back facing the largest chunk of granite in the world but my eyes focused on one of the most captivating creatures to be found in any National Park: the American dipper.

And as Muir wrote about the dipper, “Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, -none so unfailingly.” And I couldn’t agree with John Muir more.