What is your favorite outdoor space? Magnificent mountains? Dramatic oceans? Mighty rivers? All wonderful, but give me a wet meadow any day.
(Though some meadows are pretty terrible.)
One of my favorites is Ackerson Meadow, a newer addition to Yosemite National Park. I’ve written about Ackerson previously; it’s about to undergo a restoration project that will slow the water in its grazing-degraded stream and return the meadow to its historical wet splendor. I was back there in June, once again taking part in an Outdoor Adventures class on bird banding. We visited two banding stations — Ackerson Meadow, and Crane Flat Meadow — then spent a morning birding 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 would love the place but… there’s some history. Twice before I’ve stayed there, once with a group of friends, once with my sister, brother and nephew. Both times we were literally flooded, fairly catastrophically the second time. I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it another shot. On one hand, we’re in a drought 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.
We spent our first day watching the banders at work in Ackerson. Even in its unrestored state, the meadow has a nice riparian area, with thick willows lining the creek and larger trees scattered along the banks. Tall conifers border the meadows on surrounding higher ground. It’s an insectivore’s paradise, and a great place for any small bird to raise a family (even seedeaters need to feed insects to their nestlings). The mix of birds banded included a good number of warblers, along with flycatchers, sparrows, finches, towhees, chickadees and others. They caught a fair number of recently fledged Orange-crowned Warblers — it was on the early side for fledglings, but the dry spring probably allowed birds to start nesting earlier. Some were clearly very fresh from the nest, still sporting stray tufts of down on their crowns.
During our time in the meadow, we could watch the birds being banded or join the banders on net runs to collect the fresh captures. (With my molt obsession, I mostly opted for watching the processing.) Later in the morning, we split into two smaller groups to take a walk further back into the meadow to look for Willow Flycatchers. They were once plentiful throughout Sierra and foothill meadows, but they have almost disappeared from those areas. One of the goals of the Ackerson restoration is to provide suitable habitat and (hopefully) establish a breeding population again. Willow Flycatchers have been seen somewhat regularly in the meadow since the park took over. Our group walked to spot where one had been seen in previous days; we heard it almost immediately but it took 5-10 minutes to actually get a look at it. It had been more than 10 years since I’ve seen one, so it was pretty great.
After class ended for the day, my friends and I did a little birding around the area, then returned to the campground because it was just. too. hot.
As it cooled down, we did a little birding around the campgrounds and Hodgdon Meadow itself. Despite my sorrowful history camping there, the meadow itself holds a soft spot in my heart. It was there that I saw my first Willow Flycatcher almost 20 years ago. Even then it was a big deal because they were already uncommon. The meadow was surprisingly quiet — not even many blackbirds. One highlight was a flyover Pileated Woodpecker (I’ll never tire of them). We also had some nice looks at Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks. Later that evening, we had our nightcaps and farted around with mini-jigsaw puzzles from Cornell Lab. 100 pieces is about as challenging as we could manage after a long day.
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, wide open meadow that’s a few hundred meters across, and probably half a mile long or more. Crane Flat’s banding station is in a much smaller meadow, no more than a few acres, which is part of a complex situated around the intersection of Tioga Pass and Big Oak Flat roads. It feels smaller still because the tall trees come right to the wet edge of the meadow, with almost no grassy buffer area. There are many of the same birds in both locations — warblers and sparrows, especially. One real treat here is that it’s a pretty good spot for Green-tailed Towhees; uncommon but they do turn up. We were graced with a pair. (If the nearby fire lookout is open, it’s one of the best places to find them.)
I love the mix of birds at Crane Flat — you get both meadow and deep woods birds here. Pileated Woodpeckers call overhead all day, though they did not pay us a visit alas. I think there are seven potential species of woodpeckers at this spot so even when the nets are quiet, there’s plenty else to enjoy. But the nets were anything but quiet while we were there. Some of the nice visitors:
By far the coolest bird of the day took everyone by surprise, even the most experienced crew members (maybe them most of all). You need to identify a bird’s species before you band it, otherwise it could mess up all kinds of data sets. No ID = no band. And of course, the surprise bird was an empid so it meant going through flow charts, extra measurements, close examination of the shape of outer wing feathers. And when it was all done, they could confirm… a Willow Flycatcher.
Now, the Willow would have been cause for celebration at Ackerson, but at Crane Flat it was just crazy. Most likely it was a bird just passing through the area, but even that was pretty exciting to everyone. How exciting? One of the team walked to a nearby high point to email the park’s head biologist (away on vacation) about the capture. Who knew that a little brown bird with faint wing bars could generate such thrills?
After we finished class, we headed out Tioga Pass and spent a few hours in Tuolumne Meadows. The campgrounds there are undergoing a two-year renovation project. With hundreds fewer people staying there, the meadow is much less crowded this year. (Also: road construction make the drive less fun, so there’s that.) Imagine our delight when the very first bird we saw was a Mountain Bluebird.
We had one final morning of birding with the group and headed to Foresta and Big Meadow. Down in the grassland areas, we had a slightly different mix of birds again. This area is the lowest elevation in the park, so you get some valley birds at the upper reaches of their ranges. It’s about the only place that you might see many of the species we take for granted at lower elevations, like California Quail or Nuttall’s Woodpecker. I rather like Foresta because it gets you off the beaten path. In any other part of the country, Foresta Falls would be the centerpiece of a park but in Yosemite it’s an unknown backwater.
Oh, and Hodgdon did have one last trick up its sleeve — on Sunday, it began to rain lightly as we finished packing the car. I’m pretty sure it was telling me that it’s not done with me yet.
All birds photographed in hand were trapped and handled under all required state and federal permits.