The simplest experiences can be the most satisfying.
Take my Saturday night a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting at the table in my site at Tuolumne Meadows campground, starting in on my dinner - pasta with homemade pesto and some very fine wine (in a plastic mug). There was a purple glow showing through the trees, the signal of a potentially great sunset. I dumped my pasta into a storage container so it wouldn't spill, grabbed my mug and dashed across the road into the meadow. Finding a suitable rock, I sat and watched an amazing sunset unfold.
I was up there for another Yosemite Conservancy class, this time "Birds of Tuolumne Meadows" with David Lukas as our leader. I'd had him as a co-leader on a previous trip and liked his style - easygoing, entertaining and with an incredible breadth of knowledge about the ecosystems we were wandering. When I saw this course listed, I jumped at the chance. (For those of you in the greater Bay Area, he's leading two trips at Pt. Reyes in October.)
We started our day on Saturday at Ellery Lake, which is actually just outside the park a few miles east of the Tioga Pass entrance. It's where everything drops away very quickly into Lee Vining Canyon on the way to Mono Lake. This is to say: there are no undramatic views from here. What looks like snow on distant peaks above is actually different forms of rock - new rock is pushing up the Sierra and the contrast between new and old is really obvious in this part of the range.
We were standing on the shore taking it all in when a little black blur went by at the water's edge - Dipper! For someone living at sea level (like me) these guys are a rare treat - they make their home in fast-moving mountain waters, wading in (and often under) to eat aquatic insects and larvae.
When I've seen Dippers before, they've been solitary birds or in family units of 2-3 birds; they aren't flocking birds. This time there were 6-8 of them, maybe more. They were apparently drawn by an easy food source - Black Fly larvae (little dark bits perpendicular to the wood grain above). The larvae are tiny and might not normally be worth the effort of searching a rocky streambed but here they were attached to the flat spillway of the dam, and the birds could shovel them up with minimal effort.
After watching the Dippers for quite a while, we continued across the dam and onto a small eastbound trail. There was a cluster of willows downstream from the dam with Song and Fox Sparrows, the omnipresent Yellow-rumped Warblers, and at least one Green-tailed Towhee. On the opposite side of the trail, in the rocky terrain, one of the class members spotted a Pika. It looks like a rodent, but they're actually in the rabbit family. They are are high mountain animals, and being pushed to ever-higher elevations by climate change - at some point, they're going to run out of "up". On this day, we could think brighter thoughts about them as a half dozen scurried around the rocks, stocking their winter larders.
We'd been out there for more than an hour and hadn't wandered quite 300 feet, between the dippers and the geology and the sparrows and the towhee and the pikas and the wildflowers and the view down Lee Vining canyon... what a place. We picked up the pace a little bit. And then we saw the Sooty Grouse and that stopped us again. (iPhone digiscope through David's scope above.)
I'd been told on a previous trip that the #1 target bird for visiting birders in the park is Great Grey Owl (understandable), with Sooty Grouse #2. They used to be a subspecies of Blue Grouse, along with Dusky Grouse in the Rockies. Cool that they were recognized as separate species, but geez... couldn't they have come up with better names?
After our class ended Saturday, I took a walk around the meadow and had some nice encounters. Mammals were well-represented between the deer and the marmots. There was also a just-fledged Brown-headed Cowbird chick. When I say just fledged, I mean so naive that it did not have the sense to leave the path when I walked up. If I'd wanted, I could have hand-captured it.
And part of me wanted to - was sad to see this White-crowned Sparrow struggling to keep up with feeding the voracious little parasite.
There were a couple of high elevation birds that were always present, but that did not pose well for photos. Clark's Nutcrackers, for example. The bird of alpine forests - lots of them flying above, but never sitting still long enough for a photo. Likewise, Cassin's Finch. They came, they perched, they split. I managed to get this * incredible * photo of a Red Crossbill in a treetop. Unless it's a Pine Grosbeak in a treetop.
Another montane treat was a Williamson's Sapsucker. If I'm lucky, every 4th or 5th trip to the high country will include a sighting of one of these guys. In this case, it was a gal, a treat of equal magnitude.
In that same general area (by Soda Springs and Parson's Cabin), we were treated to a group of Mountain Bluebirds, a 9500' elevation Killdeer at the springs, and the activity around this one bush that seemed to be the last green, flowering plant on a hillside. As you can see, every butterfly in the area wanted in on the action.
I left Sunday, tired from the hiking and seeking the rich oxygen of lower elevations. As I headed down 120, I just wanted to be past the slowpokes in front of me. I was happy when they pulled over at the "Rim of the World" overlook in Stanislaus National Forest, and took advantage of that to get a chance to keep moving. Under different circumstances, I might have pulled over too so I could take a closer look at the two plumes of smoke rising across the canyon.
Especially if I'd known that it would be the last time in a generation or more that the view from that vantage would look that way.
Be sure to check out "Green Diary Rescue" which is posted every Saturday at 1:00 pm Pacific Time on the Daily Kos front page. Meteor Blades' excellent series is, in his words, a "round-up with excerpts and links... of the hard work so many Kossacks put into bringing matters of environmental concern to the community... [S]tarting out with some commentary of my own on an issue related to the environment, a word I take in its broadest meaning." You can find yesterday's edition here. Be sure to recommend and comment in the diary.