Friday, May 27, 2011

Bird Watching 101 - May 20th

We know most of the birds that visit our property and the Sonoma County coast, but were never serious birders until two things happened: good binoculars and this trip to a spectacular stop on a North American migratory flyway.

After breakfast this morning we pile into the car and head for Lake Abert, the third-largest saline body of water in North America. It lies in a basin with no outlet and so the mineral salts that have dissolved over millenniums are highly concentrated. Millions of brine shrimp (sea monkeys) in the lake provide food for thousands of migrating birds.

Abert Scarp Rim

The Scarp Rim, however, is the striking focal point of the area. The formation extends for 19 miles along the lake edge. It rises 2,000 feet above the plateau with an 800 foot lava cap that ends in a sheer precipice. It is one of the highest fault scarps in the world. We didn't find too many birds here, so after a short stop we head west to Summer Lake.

Summer Lake

The arid lands around Summer Lake were once lush. During the Pleistocene Era, vast areas of this region were covered by lakes and wetlands. As the last ice age was ending, rain and runoff from melting snow filled the lowlands throughout this region of the Great Basin, creating an immense, freshwater lake called Chewaucan. It covered 461 sq. miles at depths of up to 375 feet.

Summer Lake and Abert Lake are now separated by twenty miles and are the only remnants of Lake Chewaucan. Summer Lake is approximately 20 miles long and 10 miles wide. It's only source of fresh water is the small spring-fed Ana River so it shrinks during summer and expands dramatically in spring time. The Basin supports more than 250 species of birds and the wildlife area has about 8 miles of gravel road that weaves through the refuge.

When you were a teenager do you every remember doing what we used to call a Chinese Fire Drill? The driver would stop the car, all doors would fly open and everyone would change seats. I guess our greybeard version could be called the Birder Shuffle. The weather was perfect today, sunny and in the mid sixties like us. There was no one out on the refuge roads, so when someone spotted a new species our intrepid driver would simply stop the car and we'd all jump out with binoculars, scopes and cameras at the ready. 

Our partial list includes ibis, sand hill crane, stilt, yellow headed blackbird, marsh wren, ruddy duck, cinnamon teal, tundra swan, horned lark, sage sparrow, chucker, red tail hawk, night heron, golden eagle, bald eagle and white pelican.  

White Pelican

An amazing day for veterans and rookies.