Day 37 – Breakfast at Glacier Point*

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El Capitan, Yosemite National Park (photo courtesy of Jane)

As a Police Cadet, back in the mid-70’s, our education programme included occasional motivational talks. Most had little lasting impact but one in particular did stick with me – an illustrated talk by a couple of guys who had recently climbed El Capitan – a 3,000 foot sheer rock wall, in Yosemite National Park. Using an established route called The Nose, it took them several days, requiring them to bivouac overnight – using hammocks suspended from pitons hammered into the rock face. The tale of this heroic / crazy enterprise has popped up in my head from time to time ever since. Today, I got the chance to see El Capitan for real. It is truly immense and the thought of anyone climbing it at all, in any circumstances, is quite beyond belief. El Capitan aside, the whole of the Yosemite NP is pretty breath-taking. We’d begun our day with breakfast at Glacier Point, a popular view-point, elevation 7,214 feet, from which you can see many of  Yosemite’s iconic landmarks. We birded our way down to the valley bottom, taking in several impressive waterfalls, before eventually exiting via the El Portal gate. This was not a day for birds, although we did manage to catch-up with a hand-full of State ticks, and an all important trip tick – American Dipper, which we found on the River Merced, late in the afternoon, on our descent out of the National Park.

The four of us after Breakfast at Glacier Point* – which Jane says would make a good title for a novel – after Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Birds were few and far between, but we did get good views of Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon race)

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Mountain Chickadee, at it’s nest

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and American Dipper – finally ‘ticked’ on the Merced River. Record shot only

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Taking a look at ‘Wiki’, I now read of numerous incredible ascents, by different routes, of El Capitan. This one in particular caught my attention:  In 1993, Lynn Hill came close to freeing The Nose, making it past the Great Roof and up to Camp VI without falling, stopped only on Changing Corners by a piton jammed in a critical finger hold. After removing the piton she re-climbed the route from the ground. After 4 days of climbing, Hill reached the summit, making her the first person to free climb The Nose. A year later, she returned to free climb The Nose in a day, this time reaching the summit in just 23 hours and setting a new standard for free climbing on “El Cap.” 

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Day 36 – More travelling

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On the way to Kern River this morning, Sue spotted this nesting Raven with young

When we initially planned our GABRAT route we had hoped that we’d be able to travel from Death Valley, north west, to enter The Yosemite National Park via the Tioga Pass. This 9,000 feet pass is usually blocked with snow until well into May, sometimes not opening until June. This has been a pretty bad winter for much of the northern States and it was no surprise to discover that the pass remains closed. Fortunately we’d built in sufficient slack into the itinerary to allow us to take the much longer route around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains, up Highway 99 from Bakersfield, to enter the park from the south west. A minor tweak to our plans – we drove further than originally planned yesterday, allowed us to bird the lovely Audubon riparian valley reserve of Kern River this morning. Lots of additions to our California List, with several GABRAT ticks and a couple of America List ticks as well.

Oak Titmouse – a new bird for me in America

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Not a new bird for the trip, just new for California – the stunning Anna’s Hummingbird

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Day 35 – California here we come

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Record shot of Red-breasted Sapsucker, Sierra Nevada mountains. 

We stopped off at the little pond by the golf course at Furnace Creek this morning before crossing Death Valley and heading for the Sierra Nevada mountains, via Owen’s Lake. The pond provided a couple of new State ticks, including White-faced Ibis and White-throated Swift. Lunch was taken at the picnic site at Whitney Portal – the start of the trail to the summit of Mount Whitney – at 14,505 feet, the highest peak in the USA, outside of Alaska. The bird-life was rather sparse and of the handful of species we did see there, only Red-breasted Sapsucker was new for the trip. An hour spent in an unsuccessful search for American Dipper was followed by a much more productive visit to Lake Diaz, where we added several State ticks and Barn Owl (a great find by Bob) to our GABRAT list. Our journey took us south, around the tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains, before finally arriving at our lodgings for the night, on the shores of Lake Isabella.

View of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Whitney Portal approach road

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Steller’s Jay (Pacific race) – not seen since El Paso, Texas

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Day 34 – Death Valley – a real low point

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Jane, Bob & Sue search the pond at Furnace Creek golf course for migrants

At 190 feet below sea-level, Furnace Creek in Death Valley is the lowest settlement in the USA. It also holds a number of other records including the highest reliably recorded air temperature on Earth, at 134 °F (56.7 °C) on July 10, 1913, as well as the highest recorded natural ground surface temperature at 201 °F (93.9 °C) on July 15, 1972. Probably not the best place to go looking for birds but, surprisingly, we did find a few species around a tiny pond at the edge of the golf course, including Ring-necked Duck, Common Yellowthroat and, amazingly, two White Pelican! Further up the road, at Salt Creek, we had yet another encounter with critically endangered fish – this time the Death Valley Pupfish. Not much different to the Ash Meadows Pupfish to be honest but all these various Pupfish populations have evolved in tiny, isolated, spring / pond systems in the desert. Their vulnerability is self-evident. Tomorrow we cross Death Valley and head into  California, leaving the desert landscapes, which have been such a prominent feature of the first half of our journey, behind us.

Today was a minor ‘low point’ in another way – our first day without seeing a new bird. Let’s hope it was a one-off.

Prize for the most unexpected bird species of the day – two American White Pelican, which circled over-head for ten minutes before moving on

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A Death Valley (Salt Creek) Pupfish – happily swimming around in less than an inch of water, it’s dorsal fin just breaking the surface 

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Day 33 – Night birds and rare fish

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Burrowing Owl, first seen at Floyd Lamb State Park, this one was at Ash Meadows. Our sixth species of owl, if you count the dead Barn Owl on the road in Texas that is

An excellent days birding. We left our Las Vegas resort apartment for the last time and headed for Floyd Lamb State Park, on the edge of the city. Armed with some recent intel from Carol & Ken, we were looking for Burrowing Owl. We entered the stoney desert enclosure, opposite the pay booth, and quickly encountered our first ‘night birds’ – actually several Lesser Nighthawk, flying around us and obligingly perched-up close-by. Then Jane spotted the first of several Burrowing Owl, on the distant sand cliff. We eventually saw at least three and came across them later at the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Next we made a return visit to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge where the birding was as good, if not better, than our previous visit. Here we added Sagebrush Sparrow, on the approach road, and then, in or around the orchard, Evening Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak and an out of range Northern Parula. The afternoon was spent at the desert oasis reserve of Ash Meadows. The most interesting wildlife here were not birds, although we did see Wilson’s Phalarope and Snowy Plover, but Desert Longhorns – a sort of mountain sheep and a critically endangered fish – the Armagosa Pupfish, which can only be found in a few desert spring ponds on the Ash Meadows reserve – no where else in the world! They can survive in less than an inch of water, at temperatures over 90 degrees.

Also seen at Floyd Lamb and again around our Armagosa Valley casino accommodation in the desert, Lesser Nighthawk

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Ash Meadows is home to some critically endangered fish – Armagosa Pupfish. This is my pitiful attempt to photograph them in their desert spring pond home!

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I had more success photographing the pond

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Desert Longhorns, near-by

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Day 32 – Poo ponds & The Strip

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Record shot of two Red-necked Phalarope – Henderson poo ponds

We were drawn back to Clark County Wetlands Park and Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve this morning by reports on eBirder of a couple of species we need for either our trip or State lists. In the event we couldn’t find them and it looked, at one point, that today would be the first when we added no new species to our trip list. We’d done the Wetlands and were nearly finished walking the trails around the poo ponds when two birds appeared ‘spinning’ in the middle of one of the ponds. Clearly, phalarope species, closer inspection confirmed that they weren’t Wilson’s, which we’ve seen already at several locations, but Red-necked – a State, GABRAT and America tick. The guy at the Centre said he thought that, as these are ‘early breeders’ in North America, they were probably returning migrants. Coincidentally, a report on the internet today announced the first arrivals of Red-necked Phalarope back in Iceland – at the beginning of their breeding season. This reminded me of the comparatively recent discovery that the Red-necked Phalarope which breed in The Shetlands and were originally thought to winter in The Red Sea, in fact spent their winters off the coast of Peru. Whether these birds were heading north or south is unclear but one thing’s for certain they were a very welcome addition to the list.

This evening we did the tourist thing and visited The Strip – a unique and rather bizarre experience on a number of levels – one I doubt I’ll ever repeat!

Venice, in the desert

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Day 31 – More birding around Vegas

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Coyote, seen along the approach track to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge

After an easy day yesterday we did a full days birding around Las Vegas today, concentrating on two sites – the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Spring Mountain range. The Desert NWR is the largest wildlife reserve outside Alaska, incorporating 1.5 million acres of desert  – we explored about five, concentrating on the oasis of Cottonwoods and scrub, close to the visitors centre. This oasis is fed by a spring which brings water to the surface year-round and, inevitably, attracts birds on migration. The ‘orchard’, adjacent to the spring, was alive with birds. Having spent the morning down in the desert, with temperatures approaching 80F, we drove up to the ski village, on the slopes of Mount Charleston, where temperatures were in the mid-40’s – quite a change! The summit is at nearly 10,000 feet and there was still snow on the tops. The habitat consists mainly of Bristlecone Pine – apparently one the longest-lived life forms on Earth, and has a distinct bird population.

The Coyote helpfully flushed a number of birds from the desert brush include this this         Le Conte’s Thrasher – an American Tick!

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On the small pond created by the spring at the Desert NWR was an Eared Grebe – we know it as Black-eared Grebe

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and here he is swimming under water

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Up in the mountains we came across Townsend’s Solitaire – last seen at Big Bend, Texas

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and this finch, we originally thought might be Purple but which in the end concluded was probably Cassin’s – nice bird all the same

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