(Photo: Tom Heindel)
To nationally renowned birders Tom and Jo Heindel, who live in Big Pine and have recently completed a definitive guide to Inyo County birds, birding is “hunting with binoculars. There is the discovery, the chase, and the checkmark when you identify the bird. All skill levels are challenged and no one knows all there is to know about birds so it is an on-going learning experience.”
Prather noted that by getting to know even a few birds in one’s area, a birder can also learn “how to read the habitat, environment, and seasons.”
Here in the Eastern Sierra a seasonal change is already beginning for the bird population. August marks the beginning of Fall Migration, and soon huge formations of American White Pelicans
will cross the area over Tinemaha Reservoir and Klondike Lake, while colorful Western Tanagers, Yellow-rumped Audubon Warblers, and bright blue-headed Lazuli and Indigo Buntings will begin their own southern journeys. “Migration is a wonder,” Prather said. “Birds go the complete length of the western hemisphere every year. It’s awe-inspiring.”
A good place to see these vast numbers of migratory birds, particularly ducks and shorebirds, will be at the Owen’s Lake Fall Big Day, Tuesday Aug. 21. During the spring survey in April, 20 birders counted about 75,000 birds and 81 species, Prather said. This data will be used in the management of the birds and their habitat at Owen’s Lake; just one way birders have of not only enjoying but also protecting the birds they love.
Don’t expect winter to end opportunities for birding, as some northern birds, including the Ferruginous hawk, which nests in the Great Plains and Canada, will come to stay in the Eastern Sierra’s relatively milder climate.
The change of seasons in spring and fall can also bring unexpected visitors to the region. Birds that are lost during migration and end up far afield of their typical migratory path are known as “vagrants.” “My wife and I lived in Death Valley for 8 years in the 1970s,” Prather said. “That area is known as a vagrant trap. We saw dozens and dozens of birds from the east.” But one of Prather’s all-time favorite sightings: a lost flamingo at Owen’s Lake.
Meanwhile James Wilson reported his own recent encounter with 2 Sandhill Cranes flying north in spring. These birds breed in the Northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, and travel south each winter to Florida, Texas, Utah, and California. According to National Geographic, more than three-fourths of the cranes use migratory staging areas in a single 75-mile stretch along the Platte River in Nebraska, so spotting them in this part of California is rare. “That was really neat,” Wilson said.
As for the Heindels, “We’ve seen some species in Inyo County that are rare throughout the state, such as Varied Bunting, Streak-backed Oriole, Red-faced Warbler, and many more,” they said.
Chance sightings like these keep a birder’s passion alive. “I’ve been birding for 40 years and I still enjoy it,” Prather said. Wilson, who co-founded the ESAS over 25 years ago, recalled the first bird he can remember seeing: “I was 3, and a Steller’s Jay landed on the picnic table and stole my pancake.” Decades later, Wilson still believes in the value of birding. “Birding is important,” he said. “To be close physically or through binoculars to something that’s interesting and beautiful can be a really positive experience.”
To that end, the ESAS continues to provide birding events for Inyo and Mono communities, including last weekend’s Mono Lake bird walk led by Mono Lake Committee member Santiago Escruceria. Participants had a chance to see migrants coming from the north, among them Eared Grebes, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Sandpipers.
Whether a birder attends a walk along the shores of Mono Lake, or ventures out to one of the many other birding destinations in Inyo and Mono counties, he or she will quickly discover the vast diversity of the Eastern Sierra. For novices and experts alike, birding offers an activity to challenge and reward for many seasons to come.