Big Bear 2015 by Mary Freeman

Big Bear 2015, Photo by Mary Freeman

Author: Mary Carmona Freeman

On July 11, 2015, Nick and I led our annual summer mountain trip to the Big Bear vicinity. At an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, it was a welcome relief from the hot summer temperatures in the flatlands. We started off early in the morning at our meeting spot and continued up the dirt road on Mill Creek Road. The weather was great with some massive clouds in the distance. The area had received rain recently and over the recent past, which helped the habitat - and probably the birds – considerably. Louisa Serrano invited us to her forest cabin where her bird feeders attract the native montane birds: Dark-eyed Juncos, Mountain Chickadees, and Cassin’s and Purple finches. We made a stop at Metcalf Meadow to see breeding Lincoln’s Sparrow. They can be seen flying over the meadow and into the willows, singing from exposed willow branches. Red-breasted Sapsucker and Green-tailed Towhee are common here. We then moved up the road a bit to a spring where fragrant Lemon Lilies live. Here Golden-crowned Kinglet is sometimes seen in the treetops, but we were able to get great views of this handsome bird with its crown exposed at times.

We then made our way to the Bluff Lake “old cabin” trailhead at the northeast corner of the lake (not the Champion Lodgepole Pine trail), and had a male Williamson’s Sapsucker in sight within five seconds of getting out of the cars – definitely a record for us! We wandered about the woods adjacent to this small parking lot, and scared up another male and a female, a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers, and a Hairy Woodpecker before settling down in a nearby amphitheater for lunch. We had a Townsend’s Solitaire sallying about as we shared hummus and swapped stories. Walking west through the forest along the lake, we located Dusky Flycatcher for the day, duplicated a number of the birds we had already encountered, did some botanizing, and spent too much time figuring out a bunch of ratty eclipse-plumaged ducks (mostly Gadwall with some Mallard) on the lake.

Of note, there is heavy tree thinning going on for many square miles on this hill. I would say all of the way from the high ridge down to the highway in this area. The area around Bluff Lake was actually thinned about eight years ago, so the habitat has come around, and the area with the Williamson’s Sapsuckers (further NE of the lake than the “old cabin lot”) looks as if they left it alone.

Nearly all participants were committed to heading down the hill as the afternoon wore on. Don White was enthusiastic to continue with the trip to its advertised end, so the three of us had dinner at an interesting spot in town, and headed back up Mill Creek Road to look and listen for owls. Nick and I have never figured out why we continue to strike out on Flammulated Owl in this area with seemingly perfect habitat, but the habitat up this road is changing rapidly. One area where we had a juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl last year was right adjacent to some of the logging operation, and produced a possible brief, distant screech for two of us, but no owl would come in. One area further up the hill where we have had Saw-whet Owl in the past had been pretty well torn up, and had none on this night. The thickets that young birds tend to hide in had pretty well been demolished. Heading back down the hill, after trying a number of other “perfect looking” spots, we decided to try our original tentative spot again, and got a much better response! SST, SST, SST, the familiar insect-sounding call of a juvie Saw-whet. I call them the “chocolate teddy bear”. We still had to work a bit to get a visual, but we did all manage to see the bird, and even got a few photos and a video – something that has taken me many years to get the hang of! This encounter was the third year in the row of finding juvenile Saw-whets – what a record! In the six years we’ve added owling to this trip, we’ve had five encounters but only one of an adult. We finally called an end to the field trip at midnight. After all, the trip was not advertised for July 12! I think we were all happy to call it a “day”. Look out for next year’s trip to Big Bear and the hope for more Northern Saw-whet Owl encounters!Male-Black-headed-Grosbeak by-Mary-Freeman Web

Male, Black-headed Grosbeak, by Mary FreemanJuvenile-Northern-Saw-whet-Owl-from-July-132013Big-Bearby-Mary-Freeman web crop

Juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl, Big Bear, by Mary Freeman


Published Western Tanager Vol. 1 No. 82 Sep/Oct 2015

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