Birding the West Slope: Blackbird Ponds, Truckee

In Truckee, near the Pioneer Monument on the east shore of Donner Lake, is a series of ponds that are a hidden birding gem of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

It was such a hidden gem that it took a few attempts just to find access to the ponds. In the end we parked in a Taco Bell parking lot and bushwhacked, forded two creeks (Donner and Cold Creeks), and scrambled up a rocky dyke to finally reach the first pond. A pond I named Beaver Pond because there were many beaver-felled trees on the shore.

We headed up between Beaver Pond and Middle Pond (again these are my own names). The top bird on our wishlist for this birding hotspot was North America’s smallest breeding bird: calliope hummingbird. This can be a tricky bird because of it’s size and fleeting flight.

On Middle Pond, there was a female common merganser and her cadre of ducklings. Their breeding season at elevation is later from the sea level mergansers of the San Lorenzo River.

We weaved through the ponds of Blackbirds Ponds, adding more birds to our checklist. We wandered into a flowery meadow between two ponds. This seemed the best habitat for our main target bird, calliope hummingbird. Three calliopes had been reported a few days before. The meadow was full of low flying swallows, but no sign of North America’s smallest bird.

We chased a calling Cassin’s vireo in the willows when Grasshopper spotted on of North America’s largest flying birds: American white pelican. This pelican has a wingspan that is slightly smaller than our largest flying bird, the California Condor.

American white pelican coming in for a landing.

The pelican came in to land on Pipe Pond. We observed this beautiful bird and it’s mirrored twin and then headed back towards the Taco Bell parking lot.

One the way back, we passed some locals who where taking a walk with their pooch. They told us about a path that led to some other ponds to the south that we had not seen yet where, according to the locals, a few more white pelicans spent the summer.

We thanked them and headed south, toward the main line that climbed up towards Donner Pass. That’s when Grasshopper spotted a hummingbird on a snag! When I turned to look, the bird was gone. We waited and the bird returned to the perch. After some great looks and a few photos, we had checked off the smallest hummingbird in the United States, the calliope hummingbird.

Our main target bird: a male calliope hummingbird.


On Mother’s Day I saw the merganser ducklings for the first time.

I was on Washington Way, a footpath that runs parallel to the San Lorenzo River. There was the female, in a cloud of young ones. The common merganser ducklings where actively diving and foraging so it was hard to get an accurate count but I estimated I counted 12 heads.

Common merganser nests in cavities near water and females may lay 6 to 13 eggs. The hatchlings may stay in the nest for a day and then the downy young jump out of the nesting cavity and they immediately can swim and hunt for themselves. No failures to launch in the merganser world.

The next day, on my daily walk, I saw the wood duck family from Washington Way. They were foraging on Middle Beach. The group included two adult males, a female, and three ducklings.

The wood ducks with two of their three ducklings. The ducklings were actively foraging on their own on Middle Beach.
The male wood duck is considered to be the most beautiful duck in North America, if not the world. There’s a lot going on with this duck.

Later that day, at about four in the afternoon there was a late spring rain. I stood at the backdoor, looking out past the deck and the trees towards the river and I wondered how the wood duck ducklings were handling their first rain.

So I did want I always did when I am inspired by the natural world: I wrote a poem and did a sketch. What else should I have done? (As Mary Oliver would have asked).


To the three wood
duck ducklings on
the river, this was
their first rain.

Did it seem odd
to them that it
was wet from above
as well as below?

Did they wonder
if the whole world
was river?

I imagine that
before they got
lost in thought
(as much as ducks
get lost in thought)

mother presented
her downy breast
and they sought shelter
before an answer came.