Sunday, September 17, 2017

Up Close With Alturas' Wildlife

Date: July 5 and 6, 2017
Place: Modoc National Wildlife Refuge and near area, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.461836, -120.508371
Length: about 1 mile
Level: easy

We came out of Pine Creek Basin fairly quickly. Although at the tail of a 4-days backpacking trip we were energized still and ready to see more. Besides, it was still very early in the afternoon when we made it back to Alturas. So after eating lunch and reserving a hotel room for the night we headed to the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge to see what we can find there.
It was nice to see all the ponds full of water.
The Pond is Full
There is a nice auto tour road that loops around the main ponds area and in the middle  there is a parking place and a mile-long foot trail.
We started on the auto tour sitting in our usual arrangement: me at the wheel, cPappa Quail beside me with his camera in his lap, and the chikas in the back, the younger trying to engage the elder in some sort of discussion and the elder hushing her because she is looking for birds. The first animal that we stopped for, however, wasn't a bird but a muskrat in the canal near the road.
Musk Rat

The muskrat didn't linger around and after it went away we continued our slow drive with the windows rolled open.
We've been at this refuge once before. It was April and spring has just begun at the Modoc Country. Many of the birds we saw then were wearing their courtship plumage. Sandhill cranes don't have special courtship plumage but they were busy nonetheless. On that visit we got to see a mamma crane sitting in her nest on a tiny weeds island in the pond.
On this visit we got to see the outcome of this year's nesting: many bird babies were about with their parents. We were most excited to see crane families too. A mom, a dad, and a young crane colt. The first colt we saw was nearly fully grown with only its colors and behavior setting it apart from his parents. 
Sandhill Crane Family. The colt is the bird on the left. 
We didn't drive far before having to stop: right in the middle of the road was a large gopher snake. It was a warm day, but the snake didn't bother to move. I killed the engine and we all went outside to take a closer look. The snake didn't move even when we were all on top of it. It didn't move when we tried to scare it away. Eventually I had to pick it up and move it off the road. Only then it tried wriggling away. I put it down by the roadside and it slithered off into the vegetation. We could go on driving.
Gopher Snake
The road wasn't clear for too long, though. Ahead of us was a small covey of California quail. Adults and young. They, however, did move away as we slowly approached.
California Quail
We arrived at the small parking area were the foot trail started and went out for a little hike. The birds were everywhere and didn't mind us a but.
Red-winged Blackbird
The trail meanders around the ponds which, unlike at our first visit there, were full to the brim. The sun rays of the now late afternoon lit the water surface and the algae clumps glittered as if made of gold.

Uo close the water surface didn't look as impeccable. Birds were swimming in it, creasing the surface and sending ripples that bounced off the floating vegetation.
Pied-billed Grebe with a snack
Birds were prowling in the shallows as well. We walked very slowly, inspecting the area carefully for any movement.
(Greater) Yellowlegs
This is how Pappa Quail caught sight of a deer that was moving in the reeds. And then another one crossed the shallow pond behind us. Late on we saw a third deer hiding in the bushes.
Black-tailed Deer

We circumvented the small pond and took  the right turn to the road between the small and the large ponds. The larger pond was deeper and with less vegetation. And the ducks that swam in it were not just mallards.
Scaup, female
Pappa Quail stopped behind me. He was following a bird that was active on the far shore of the shallow pond: a yellow-headed blackbird, busy gathering nesting material. Every other bird we've seen there was already with babies and I was wondering if this nest was the second round or that only now he found his mate and was having a ate start.
Yellow-headed Blackbird
We continued along the road, completing the foot loop hike back to the car. On our way we saw another gopher snake sunning itself on the road but it hurried and slithered off as we approached.
We got back in the car and continued to drive around the large pond.

As we were approaching the visitor center area Pappa Quail called me to stop with great excitement: there, on an island go tule in side the pond were two sandhill cranes. Next to them was something tiny and orange that was moving - a baby!
The young colt was bobbing up and down between the reeds and its parents  and it was difficult to get a clear view but Pappa Quail did a fine job of capturing a photo/ Meanwhile I had to fight my elder chika over the single pair of binoculars that we had with us. Eventually I prevailed (Muahahaha). Not to worry - she got a good long time looking through the binoculars at the baby crane.
Sandhill Crane Family
We completed the car tour and on our way out I stopped and had Pappa Quail photograph a lupine bush in full bloom that stood against the dry grass background off the path. It was nice to see some bloom down in the valley where it was already late in season.
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus albicaulis
Just outside the refuge Pappa Quail saw a harrier standing on a fence post, so we stopped again, one last time that day.
Northern Harrier, male
The hiker that we'd met on our way up to Pine Creek Basin had told us about good places to view wildlife. On our previous visit to the area we'd seen pronghorn antelopes in the fields south of Alturas and the local hiker suggested that we drive on Westside Rd: the road parallel to SR-395, between the fields and the hills to the west of Surprise Valley. We decided to do so first thing in the morning, and after we spent a nice, restful nigh at a local hotel we went driving south down that road.
We sure did see pronghorns there. A bunch of them - adults and juvenile.
Most of them kept a good distance from the road we were diving on, and those that were close quickly dashed away. One lone male, however, did remain close and kept us under his watch.
Pronghorn Buck
A few dirt roads split from the road and extended toward the hills. We turned on one of them, hoping to get a different point of view on the pronghorn, but without much success. We did see a jackrabbit, though.
Jack Rabbit
Pappa Quail noticed a papa quail standing on a bush, got out of the car and got busy photographing him.
California Quail, male
Meanwhile I appreciated some sunflowers that were blooming by the roadside.
Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
Eventually it was time to head back. We found a dirt road that connected Westside Rd with SR 395 and started going back east. The path was flanked by fields and as we approached SR 395 we were about to cross a canal, marked by tall vegetation growing on both its banks.
The canal was fenced and on a fence pst was a red-tailed hawk. Behind it were a couple of sandhill cranes. All three were pretty far off. What was closer though was  horned lark that perched on the fence just ahead of us.
Horned Lark
At a safe distance from the horned lark perched a dragonfly.
After crossing the canal Pappa Quail called for me to stop: a large raptor was circling the sky. He got out of the car and I raised the binoculars to my eyes: a golden eagle, way up high!
Golden Eagle
We were all very excited seeing the eagle. Not eager to leave the area too soon, Pappa Quail suggested we go back to the Modoc NWR and drive the auto tour again. So back on SR 395 I turned north back toward Alturas.
Canada Geese in the field near the refuge
As we got near the refuge we saw another raptor standing on the fence post - this time a red-tailed hawk. And it was busy eating.
Red-tailed Hawk
Our main objective for the second tour of the refuge was to see the young crane colt again, but we didn't see it this time around. We did enjoy seeing other baby birds there.
American Coot
As common as coots and mallards are, seeing them with babies is always a treat. And ducklings are cute even when observed for the millionth time.
We didn't see any 'special' wildlife not previously seen on that second round auto tour, and we did go through the path fairly quickly, not going on the foot trail this time. Nonetheless it was a very rewarding drive.
Black-necked Stilt
I looked at the mountains to the east, where was the South Warner Wilderness. Only yesterday were were there, enjoying the lush spring of the high mountains and the solitude of a healthy wilderness. Now it was a past captured in photographs and memory cells and chips. I looked longingly at these mountains, wondering when will I see them next.

We completed the auto tour and after a quick lunch in town we started southwest toward Lassen Volcanic National Park, where we planned to stop on our way back to Redding. When we arrived at Fall River Mills it was time to fuel the car but we stopped less than a mile short of the gas station: once again there was an eagle in the sky and this time it was a bald eagle.
Bald Eagle at Fall River Mills

We completed the day with a stop at hat Creek and a walk around Manzanita Lake before which I asked the ranger about the schedule of the SR 89 snow removal and the date of the road's opening. Mid July, I was informed, and I was glad to hear that because I was planning to go back there for a family group camping two weeks later.
By the time we arrived in Redding my mind was already busy planning the next camping trip. But at night I closed my eyes and let my mind take me back once more to the Warren Peak and to Pine Creek Basin, and to the sight of cranes in the fields of Modoc Country. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Downstream Pine Creek: From the Basin to the Trailhead

Heart-leaved Arnica, Arnica cordifolia

Date: July 5, 2017
Place: South Warner Wilderness, Alturas, California
Coordinates (of Pine Creek Basin): 41.362254, -120.243023
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: moderate

Our last morning at the South Warner Wilderness was slow and easy. We all slept well for a change, and took our time eating breakfast and breaking camp. We left our shoes off because the first thing we needed to do after hoisting our backpacks was fording Pine Creek. (Brrrr, cold water!).
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp. By the north bank of Pine Creek. 
On the other side of the creek we took our time to take a good, long goodbye from Pine Creek Basin. We did promise ourselves to go back to this wilderness one day and make it all the way to Patterson Lake, but likely we'd come in from the Summit Trailhead next time.

 It was also time to say goodbye to one of the nicest plants I found at the basin - the Brown's peony. Only two days have passed since I saw it on our way up and now there were no more peony flowers to be seen. They all went to fruit.
Brown's Peony, Peonia brownii 
We lingered there for a while before finally starting down the trail that will take us out of the wilderness. It was a bright sunny day, and we were plunging into the shade of forest.
Pine Creek
In the forest - the gooseberry bloomed still. I have seen these on our way up three on the first day of our trip.
Sticky Currant, Ribes viscosissimum
But now that I wasn't pushing to go uphill I also seen undergrowth flowers that I have overlooked before.
Bearded Lousewort, Pedicularis semibarbata 
Pappa Quail too finally got to see the pond with the waterfall that he had missed on our way up. With his birding lens he got a nice zoomed image of the waterfall.

We wend down at a fast pace but stopped frequently to admire the sights we've seen. The chikas pointed things out to me left and right.
Fritillary Butterfly
For a good portion of the trail we walked near Pine Creek right at the edge of the forest bordering small meadows and creek wetlands. While the lower, wetter areas were gown with corn lilies and monkey flowers, the slightly higher and drier grounds were covered with other plants. In this case - a lovely patch of mountain mule ears.
Mountain Mule Ears Patch 
Pappa Quail who was at the lead most of the time got to see a big buck at the edge of one of these meadows. By the time I caught up with him the buck had already hopped off.
A Hungry Buck 
I consoled myself with the pretty wildflowers and the many insects that were busy about them.
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
Pappa Quail too was fascinated by the butterflies. There were many of them, of many species. This swallowtail was focused on the larkspur that were growing there in a nice, thick patch.
Swallowtail on Larkspur 
The forest wasn't very dense but the pines, small and thin as they were, looked healthy. It was good to  hike in a healthy coniferous forest for a change. I hope that the boring beetle doesn't get there and damage the Modoc as it did the Sierra Nevada forests.
Pine Creek Trail
Enough sunlight penetrated the forest canopy to support a nice undergrowth. Many of these plants were blooming. Some I have never seen before.
Meadow Rue, Thalictrum fendleri
Many of these forest undergrowth blossoms were not big and bright as the meadow flowers, and I passed over most of them on our way up two days before. On our way down, however, I took the time to look at them more closely and found that they had a delicate beauty that's worth noticing and noting.
Alpine mitrewort, Pectiantia pentandra

When we took a break, sitting down to rest and eat a snack, I had the time to take some macro images of the smaller of these undergrowth blossoms. This way I can appreciate the details of these tiny flowers when looking at the enlarged pictures on my computer screen, something I cannot do in real time during the hike. (Not when I don't carry a magnifying lens with me).
Sticky Starwart, Pseudostellaria jamesiana

We went on and in a short time were out in an open meadow once again. The meadow has its tiny resident flowers as well.
Nevada Bitter Root, Lewisia nevadensis 
Out in the sunshine again and surrounded by butterflies, I noticed another beautiful winged creature - a pretty dragonfly poised atop a cornlily plant.

On the distant bank of the creek I saw the same line of bog orchids I had photographed plenty of on the way up. This time, however, I was after the swallowtail :-)
Swallowtail on Bog Orchid
We kept going at a quick pace all the way down. Once again I found myself in the rear, pausing now and then to enjoy the wildflowers and the forest as a whole.
Yellow Monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus
Pappa Quail too had stopped, at least once :-)
Ash-throated Flycatcher
But in short, we made it back to the trailhead fairly quickly. It wasn't even noontime when we reached our car.
At the end of our previous family backpacking trip to Manzana Creek we pretty much collapsed into the cr. This time, however, we arrived with much energy still. We took the time to change shoes and rearrange our gear and pack it nicely in the car before finally saying goodby to the South Warner Wilderness.
Not to far from us was a large van and a few people getting ready to hike in with a bunch of forestry work tools. They were National Forest trail maintenance crew, all volunteers, that were going in to clear the trail from obstacles. We told them about the snow block up by Patterson Lake and I hope they managed to get our bottles and hiking poles that we had lost during our snow bypassing ordeal.
Bye Bye! 
Modoc County is a full day's drive from the Bay Area and we don't know when our next trip there will be. Since we had exited the wilderness a day earlier than we had planned we decided to stay in Alturas one more day and go look for wildlife (especially the feathered kind) at the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge. There is much to see in that remote end of California. It is very beautiful and unique there, and not very many people travel there. On our entire trip we came across very few people, all of them local or have been local at some point in their past. The South Warner Wilderness is a pristine wilderness gem that we were fortunate to find and are sure to go back there to explore further.