It was the first weekend in June, and Yosemite beckoned. Last November, when we'd signed up for the class, the winter rains were late but we didn't yet know they'd be all but non-existent. (Not that it would have deterred us.) So what would await us this time?
Half Dome never disappoints. A high-country thunderstorm had just cleared off and gave a nice dramatic view from the bridge near our campground. Later that evening, we were back in the same spot to watch bats.
Birds, thankfully. And cliffs and waterfalls and flowers and bugs and bats and stuff.
Nancy managed to grab a campsite so we could arrive a day early for our class, so we had one day of adventuring on our own so we tried a new-to-us trail from Porcupine Flat (along Tioga Pass Road) out to North Dome. Though we didn't quite make it to North Dome, we did have a great walk, including one wet meadow with Hermit Thrushes in full song and several amazing vista points.
Regular readers know we like to eat well in Yosemite. Our first night featured fish tacos with Nancy's homemade tortillas and sustainable fish from her CSA, along with a very nice bottle of wine from one of my favorite Santa Cruz Mountains wineries.
We met with our class and leaders David Lukas and Sarah Stock on Friday, and headed for Glacier Point in hopes of seeing grouse (no luck) and other high-country specialties. Once the tourists started arriving in bigger numbers, we backtracked a few miles and walked toward Taft Point. We had our lunch while watching nuthatches go about their business, then headed back to the valley for a few hours down time. That evening, we went in quest of owls on the valley floor. Back at our campsite, we joined some of our classmates around their campfire in the quest for marshmallow perfection. We may well have achieved it.
On Saturday, we started our day with a visit to the banding station at Crane Flat. Last year, our raptor class visited the banders as a spontaneous add-on to the class; it went over so well that it's now a monthly activity at the park. If you're headed to Yosemite this summer, see if it's happening during your visit.
Two sisters in our class get a closer look at sparrow before it's released. Sarah Stock, park biologist, was one of our instructors. The sisters were really great to have along – knowledgeable about the outdoors and very interested in everything.
After leaving Crane Flat, we headed to Gin Flat, an area on the way in to the Tamarack Flat campground. (With all the peaks and slopes along Tioga Pass, apparently every flat space more than 10 feet square gets a name.) We saw a number of birds foraging to feed hungry chicks – rather than the usual meandering probing, birds were moving at a furious pace around the trees. One big treat during the walk was getting a nice look at Mountain Quail, a bird much more often heard than seen.
We had a nice late lunch at Siesta Lake. There were a few ducks on the lake but not much other bird life. We were watching dragonflies in the process of molting - kind of fascinating to see them halfway between bodies. There was a great mob scene of jays midway through lunch and we trekked off in search of the commotion. We never did find the culprit who had them all so upset; a bummer since at that altitude a likely suspect would be a goshawk. On the way back to camp we stopped at Fern Spring, a cool spot hidden in plain sight at the west end of the valley. Returning to our car, we found a few more impressive insects.
On Sunday we spent some time in the Valley before heading our separate ways. We started in The Fen next to Happy Isles. This swampy area is always one of the most birdy spots in the valley, and it did not disappoint. We had great looks at Yellow Warblers, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks and many others. Birds were in full song and really putting on a show... and mostly moving too fast for me to digiscope.
After a walk along the river on the Valley Loop trail, we started the drive home and headed out 120. It was the first time either of us had been that way since last fall's huge Rim Fire, which burned 257,000 acres in Yosemite, Stanislaus National Forest and surrounding areas. Even having seen the aftermath of other fires (like the Big Meadow Fire of 2009), this was stunning. We'd had glimpses of the fire zone along Tioga Pass Road in previous days, but nothing like the views on the way out of the park heading toward Groveland. The bad news for birds (and birders) is that dozens of known Great Grey Owl territories were destroyed by the fire.
We took a side trip down Evergreen Road (the road to Hetch Hetchy), which we'd visited several times before. It was at the heart of the fire, national forest land that had burned heavily during the first weeks of the blaze. All along the road, salvage logging operations are underway and most of the trees still standing are marked for cutting. Within the park, the only trees being cut a few that would be dangerous to park visitors, but in the national forest huge areas are due to be cut. Unfortunately, this means that the damaged soils in these areas will take a lot longer to regenerate because the organic material from burned trees is being removed. The area to be logged over the next year is over 30,000 acres. The forest service is trying to move this through quickly and is ending the comment period today – June 15. If you have a moment to write and ask that the logging be slowed, you can comment here: email@example.com – and use a subject line of “Rim Recovery”.
This is the view from Rim of the World, for which the fire was named. Last year I was driving past the day it was getting started and saw it as a plume of smoke, nothing more. Click on the photo and open the largest version to get an idea of just extensive this fire was...
The forest has suffered, but it's not dead. Below the charred trunks, wildflowers are busting out everywhere, even with our scant winter rains. This area will come back, as long as we let it do so.