2012 San Gabriel Mountains—Mt. Wilson Field Trip Report

By Heather Sabin, LAAS Member and Volunteer

September 11, 2012

On August 25th, 2012, a group of Los Angeles Audubon field tripers birded the morning away up in the conifers off the Angeles Crest Highway, then ended up at Mount Wilson Observatory.  After lunch there at the Cosmic Café, participants took the guided 2-hour tour around the Observatory grounds and facilities, including an especially close look at the 100-inch telescope.  Birding highlights were a female CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, WILSON'S WARBLER, 5 species of woodpeckers, and a NORTHERN PYGMY OWL.

There was not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was perfect on Saturday morning, August 25th , when a group of 17 of us met Nick and Mary Freeman at 7am along the Angeles Crest Highway just north of the 210 in La Canada to organize our carpools. Joe and I hopped in with a very friendly couple named George and Grace. How many more years will it be until people don’t remember the Allens and think of them when they hear those names? Anyway, we wound our way to up the Crest to Red Box where we met Norm Vargas and we looked out over the canyon for a couple of minutes. We spotted a couple Phainopeplas, and I think someone saw some Lawrence’s goldfinches here. Mary thought she heard a Mountain Quail, but I missed it.


We know There's a Northern Pygmy Owl out there somewhere ...

From Red Box we continued on to Charlton Flats where we lingered for quite a while looking at some Pygmy nuthatches and White-Breasted Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, Western Bluebirds, Dark-Eyed Juncos, etc . We also spotted 4 different kinds of woodpeckers here. It took a few minutes to finally spot the White-Headed Woodpecker, but we got it, as well as a Hairy Woodpecker, tons of chatty Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Nuttall’s. Adding some nice color to the conifers were 3 Wilson’s Warblers that we admired for a bit.

Then George spotted some bright emerald green that definitely wasn’t a plant color, and lo and behold, it was the back of a female Calliope hummingbird. She was very cooperative and sat for us for a long time, which was helpful, because being a female hummer meant it took quite a few minutes of analysis for people to finally decide she was definitely a Calliope.

We finally pulled ourselves away from the Flats since we had a schedule to keep, and drove on to an area just next to the road where there was a small spring. Sometimes Nick and Mary have had good luck here, and there was definitely a bird or two near the water, but I only spotted what I think was an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding on some of the wildflowers along the water, which was still a pretty sight.


View from the Angeles Crest Highway

We drove on to another place just next to the road where you could look out at a large expanse of canyonside. Here Mary brought out her electronics and began to play the call of a Northern Pygmy Owl, saying she had had luck finding them here before. I have to admit, I felt a little silly standing by the road staring at 1,000 trees while Mary’s phone made “tooting” noises. I thought to myself, “Oh, there’s NO way this is EVER going to work!” We all stood quietly by the road for a few minutes, during which time two Clark’s Nutcrackers flew by, one of which even alighted on the top of a tree right across from our group, just long enough for a low cheer, then it was off again. My attention returned to the canyon in front of us then as I began to hear a low toot from the woods. I thought to myself “OK, I must be hearing things. Am I hearing the phone echoing out there??”, but no! It was a Northern Pygmy Owl calling back! Even more miraculous than that was that after just a few more minutes of intensely concentrated effort someone said, “I’ve got it!!” then she proceeded to assist others in getting it into the scopes for all of us to view. Our little owl was not going anywhere, so we were able to look at it as long as we liked. Everyone was very excited, though I think none more than Mary!

After we’d all had as many looks as we liked at the owl, Mary said we’d better move on to Mt. Wilson so that we’d have time for lunch, so that was where we headed next. We sat together at the picnic tables outside the Cosmic Café and enjoyed our sandwiches and watched hummingbirds feed at the 2 feeders hanging from the side of the covered patio there. We also took a look at a bat squeezed into a space in the roof of the patio, trying to rest despite all of our lunchtime chatter.

At 1pm we began our group tour of the Observatory which was very interesting and informative. Our docent had tons of astronomical knowledge, history and trivia at his fingertips, and not only that, he had Norm there as well, for real-live astronomer backup. We had a very extensive two-hour tour in which I think we walked almost a mile around the various buildings there.

We started with a stop into the little museum to take a quick look around and take a look at the model of the buildings and telescopes there. Then we moved on to the 150’ solar telescope built in 1912, where we were just in time to meet the solar astronomer before he went up in the same bucket that people like Einstein have been in to go to the top to make adjustments. He even already had his climbing safety harness on. He very kindly interrupted his day to take a lot of time explaining to us the history of the telescope and what they do there, and he even brought us into a back room to show us the daily hand-drawn pencil sketches of the sunspots. While in that room we all admired the still working, absolutely ancient Raytheon computers in the room, as he proudly told us that he had found ways to keep all of that old equipment running.


The Solar Telescopes. The shorter one is 60' tall and was built in 1908, and the taller one is 150' tall, and was built in 1912.


Our docent attempts to explain fow the CHARA array telescopes work.

Once we’d had our fill of the solar telescope, we stopped in front of a very diminutive (in comparison) telescope and learned how it was part of cutting edge technology called optical astronomical interferometry. Six one-meter telescopes are connected together on the mountaintop in such a way as to produce data as if it were from one much larger telescope. How it works is all very complicated though, as computers need to make sure that the data from each telescope reaches the same point at exactly the same time, despite their different locations. We were told that these telescopes are already making amazing discoveries, like whether stars we’re seeing are being viewed from their sides or from the top or bottom for example.


The 100" telescope.

We then moved on to the 100 inch Hooker reflecting telescope, which was apparently the largest telescope in the world from its completion in 1917 until 1948. We heard how the very still air over Mt. Wilson makes for good astronomical viewing conditions, called “seeing”. We were told how people like Edwin Hubble made important discoveries here with this telescope, such as that our galaxy is not at the center of the universe, and that the universe is expanding.

We also learned that the 100” telescope had never had an eyepiece, but that the telescope was currently being rigged up with one and will be available for groups to rent. It was exciting to imagine what the view through such an impressive telescope would be like.

This was an outstanding trip. It was the perfect combination of a couple hours of productive birding with a couple hours of visiting a site of important historical and scientific interest. I hope this trip will be repeated in the future, but I also recommend people consider replicating this trip on their own if they already like birding up the Angeles Crest and have been meaning to visit Mt. Wilson. Just be sure to check the tour times in advance!

Be sure to check out the photo album on our Facebook site: facebook.com/losangelesaudubon.

Published Western Tanager, Vol. 79 No. 2 November/December 2012