Dawn Chorus: A Meadow Returns

The day ends at Ackerson Meadow, a gem on the northwest edge of Yosemite National Park.
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Hodgdon showed his friendly side – white-headed woodpeckers were on site most of the time.

What is your favorite outdoor space? Gorgeous mountains? Dramatic oceans? Mighty rivers? Everything is wonderful, but give me a wet meadow anytime.

(Although some grasslands are pretty terrible.)

One of my favorites is Ackerson Meadow, a new addition to Yosemite National Park. I’ve written about Ackerson before; he is about to undergo a restoration project that will slow the water in its grazing-degraded creek and restore the prairie to its historic wet splendour. I went back in June, again participating in a outdoor adventures course on bird banding. We visited two banding stations – Ackerson Meadow and Crane Flat Meadow – then spent a morning birdwatching around Foresta and Big Meadow.

Our campsites for the trip were at Hodgdon Meadow, a campground just inside the north entrance to the park. Given the name, you’d think I’d love the place but… there’s a story. Twice before I have been there, once with a group of friends, once with my sister, brother and nephew. Both times we were literally inundated, quite catastrophically the second time around. I wasn’t sure I was ready to give him another chance. For one, we are in a drought period, so the chances of rain were pretty minimal. OTOH, if my luck with Hodgdon was unchanged and the rains came, well, that would be beneficial.

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Larger than life dark flycatcher. It’s a cool little bird that’s stuck with a boring name.

We spent our first day watching banders at work in Ackerson. Even in its unrestored state, the prairie has a nice riparian zone, with thick willows lining the creek and taller trees scattered along the banks. Tall conifers border the meadows on the surrounding heights. It’s an insectivore paradise and a great place for any little bird to raise a family (even seed eaters have to feed their baby birds insects). The mix of banded birds included a good number of warblers, as well as flycatchers, sparrows, finches, towhee, chickadees and others. They caught a fair number of recently fledged Orange-crowned Warblers – it was early for fledglings, but the dry spring likely allowed the birds to start nesting earlier. Some were clearly very fresh from the nest, still sporting stray tufts of down on their crowns.

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Orange-crowned warbler, actually showing off its orange crown! In addition to the orange crowns, they also banded yellow, yellow-rumped, MacGillivray’s and solitary Ackerson’s warblers right before our eyes.
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More empids… this time a Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Colored by the standards of this family, but still basically a small brown bird with low wingbars and a not overly colorful name.

While in the meadow, we could watch the birds being banded or join the banders on the nets to pick up the fresh catch. (With my shedding obsession, I mostly opted to watch the treat.) Later that morning, we split into two small groups to take a walk further into the meadow in search of Willow Flycatchers. They were once abundant throughout the Sierra and foothill grasslands, but have nearly disappeared from these areas. One of the goals of Ackerson’s restoration is to provide suitable habitat and (hopefully) re-establish a breeding population. Willow Flycatchers have been seen fairly regularly in the meadow since the park took over. Our group walked to locate the place where we had been seen the previous days; we heard it almost immediately, but it took 5-10 minutes to get a look. It had been over 10 years since I had seen one, so that was pretty awesome.

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It was the only waxwing of the trip.

After school was over for the day, my friends and I did a bit of birding in the area and then headed back to the campground because it was fair. too. hot.

As it cooled we did a bit of birding around the campgrounds and Hodgdon Meadow itself. Despite my sad history of camping there, the prairie itself holds a sweet place in my heart. This is where I saw my first Willow Flycatcher almost 20 years ago. Even then, it was a big deal because they were already rare. The meadow was surprisingly calm – not even many blackbirds. A highlight was a flyover of the Great Peak (I will never get tired of this). We also got some great looks at western tanagers and black-capped cardinals. Later in the evening, we had our night drinks and farted with Cornell Lab mini-puzzles. 100 coins is about as hard as we could handle after a long day.

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Saturday found us at Crane Flat Meadow, aka Chevron Meadow – it’s across from the gas station at the start of Tioga Pass Road. Ackerson is a large open prairie a few hundred yards wide and probably half a mile long or more. The Crane Flat Banding Station is on a much smaller prairie, no more than a few acres, which is part of a compound located around the intersection of Tioga Pass and Big Oak Flat roads. It looks even smaller because the tall trees just come to the wet edge of the prairie, with almost no grassy buffer. There are many of the same birds in both places – warblers and sparrows, in particular. A real treat here is that it is a very good place for Green-tailed Towhee; rare but they do occur. We were honored with a pair. (If the nearby fire lookout is open, that’s one of the best places to find them.)

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Female MacGillivray’s warbler. The gray head of the male is a bit darker, but they both have the very distinctive split eyering. It’s a bird that I always associate with Yosemite.

I love the mix of birds at Crane Flat – you get both grassland birds and deep woods here. Pileated woodpeckers have been calling overhead all day, although they haven’t visited us alas. I think there are seven potential woodpecker species there, so even when the nets are calm there are plenty of other things to enjoy. But the nets were anything but quiet during our stay. Some nice visitors:

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This bander loves nuthatches so much that this white-breasted nuthatch had slightly watery eyes. Field biology is one of those jobs that is never “just a job”. Their love and care for the birds comes through.
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A young male Anna’s Hummingbird – his gorget feathers just beginning to show. They took action but released him without a ring because hummingbirds take special rings that they are not set up to use.
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There was some non-avian coolness in the form of a crab spider (identifying details or corrections welcome)

By far the coolest bird of the day took everyone by surprise, even the most experienced crew members (perhaps mostly them). You need to identify a bird’s species before banding it, otherwise it could mess up all sorts of datasets. No identification = no tape. And of course the surprise bird was an empid so that meant going through flow charts, extra measurements, careful consideration of the shape of the outer wing feathers. And when it was all done, they were able to confirm…a Willow Flycatcher.

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Celebrity Willow Flycatcher. (Unfortunately, my phone wants to be a botanist instead of an ornithologist, so it still focuses on plants rather than birds.)

Now the Willow would have been cause for celebration in Ackerson, but in Crane Flat it was just plain crazy. It was most likely a bird just passing by the area, but even that was pretty exciting for everyone. How exciting? One of the team members drove to a nearby high point to email the park’s chief biologist (on vacation) about the capture. Who would have thought that a small brown bird with weak wingbars could generate such sensations?

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More non-avian fun: Groundhog at Tuolumne Meadows

After completing the course we headed to Tioga Pass and spent a few hours at Tuolumne Meadows. The campgrounds are undergoing a two-year renovation project. With hundreds fewer people staying there, the meadow is much less crowded this year. (Also: road construction makes driving less fun, so there you have it.) Imagine our delight when the very first bird we saw was a mountain bluebird.

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How intense is the blue sky at 9,500 feet? Intense enough that even this mountain bluebird pales in comparison.

We spent one last morning birding with the group and headed out to Foresta and Big Meadow. In the grasslands we again had a slightly different mix of birds. This area is the lowest in the park, so you get valley birds at the upper end of their range. It’s about the only place you might see many species we take for granted at lower elevations, like California quail or Nuttall’s woodpecker. I rather like Foresta because it’s off the beaten track. In any other part of the country, Foresta Falls would be the centerpiece of a park, but in Yosemite, it’s an unfamiliar backwater.

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Black Phoebe: A low-key favorite bird in a low-key favorite spot.

Oh, and Hodgdon had one last trick up his sleeve – on Sunday it started to rain lightly as we finished packing the car. I’m pretty sure he was telling me it wasn’t over with me yet.

To note:

All birds photographed by hand were trapped and handled under all required state and federal permits.

Chris B. Hall