Sarah & I spent a lovely 3-day weekend with our friends Debey & Terry at my family’s cabin, just east of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This was our first visit this calendar year, and as is often the case, we chided ourselves for not coming up more often, as it’s only about a 3.5-hour drive from home.
We left SF early’ish on Friday, arriving at the cabin in the early afternoon. On the drive across the central valley, out the car window I saw my first Black-billed Magpie and Western Meadowlarks of the season.
At the cabin, to my shock, it was lightly snowing, with a thin veil covering the ground and trees. Although the cabin is at about 5000′, it is VERY unusual to see snow on the ground much past March. We unpacked, warmed up the cabin, and relaxed with some wine and a cheese plate. Deb & Terry’s dogs, Carmella & Sorella enjoyed a walk around Snowshoe Lake, and they had a fine time getting totally muddy, then we hunkered down and ate (home-made carnitas w/home-made guacamole, salsa, and pickled veggies), drank, and played games well into the evening.
Saturday morning was a complete change from Friday’s snow and cold – the white stuff had all melted away overnight, and it was sunny and in the mid-60s when we awoke!
an older photo, but also taken at the cabin
Deb is an excellent birder, being a former president of Golden Gate Audubon, and we had a great time doing some morning birding from the cabin’s deck. She’s very good at birding by ear, helpful in the tall coniferous forests that surround the cabin! We saw White-headed Woodpeckers and numerous Black-headed Grosbeaks, one of my (many) favorite birds. Their long whistling song is just so lovely, and their striking features only sweeten the deal! Thankfully I’d brought my scope, and we enjoyed some excellent views in the trees. Robins were also afoot, and numerous Mountain Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted about.
Debey helped me sort out the many songs we were hearing in the woods, and I can now definitely pick out the surprisingly-loud, buzzy call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and the “pretty-baby” call of the Mountain Chickadee. Juncos continue to mystify me, however, as they seem to have little in the way of a pattern, and I’m always thinking it’s some other bird when I hear one!
We checked a nest box by the front door and found it occupied by a Mountain Chickadee, and when we looked up, we saw that a Steller’s Jay had nested in the eaves above the staircase – not two species you’d expect to nest next to each other, but the Chickadee is presumably fairly safe so long as the Jay is incubating.
After a tasty breakfast of chorizo and eggs, we loaded the dogs into Deb & Terry’s car and drove up the pass to Lake Alpine. We were happy to find that Hwy 4 was open all the way to the lake (but not beyond until May 31st). The lake was still frozen over in places, and there was enough snow on the ground that we decided to just meander around the shore, rather than trying to see if the (steep) trail to Inspiration Point was navigable, especially since only Sarah & I had snow boots.
The dogs were indescribably happy to be in this lovely setting, with a few inches of freshly-fallen powder and a lake to splash in. With seemingly limitless energy they bounded back and forth on the trail, chasing snowballs and sticks, getting thoroughly wet, and loving every minute of it.
Unsurprisingly there were not a lot of birds, Lake Alpine being a little high to expect much at this time of year, but we did see a pair of Common Mergansers diving by the ice line, as well as several Steller’s Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a dozen Brewer’s Blackbirds.
After 90 minutes of playing in the snow and enjoying the alpine views, we headed back to the cabin and had a delicious cheese plate of local charcuterie and cheese that Deb & Terry got from a friend at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market in SF, mmmmm!
Saturday evening entailed more tasty home cookin’ (steak marsala w/fava beans and pancetta), more drinking, and more games. This is one of life’s greatest joys for me – a day full of nature and an evening of great food, drink, and company!
I woke early on Sunday morning (6:30), brewed a pot of coffee, and sat on the deck to see what was a-wing. Deb woke early too and joined me and we had a grand time looking at White-headed Woodpeckers, numerous Black-headed Grosbeaks, Band-tailed Pigeons, Ravens, a Fox Sparrow, and Mountain Chickadees. Red-breasted Nuthatches continued to make certain that I knew their call (beep beep beep beep beep!), and some Robins chimed in to keep us honest with the Grosbeaks (they sound fairly similar, but robins’ song is just a few notes, while Black-headed Grosbeaks whistle away for quite some time).
After a breakfast of leftover pancetta, eggs, and potatoes, we headed down the road to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, one of my favorite parks in the state. We nearly always hike the North Grove Trail, an easy 1.2-mile flat, nearly paved trail through a grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum). These enormous trees can reach nearly 300 feet, although the ones at the North Grove are a bit smaller, and are the largest living things on Earth, with the largest weighing in at a hefty 2,700,000 pounds.
We were very happy to find that the Mountain Dogwooods (Cornus nuttallii), abundant among the sequoias, were starting to bloom. Although I’ve hiked this trail many dozens of times, this was the first I could recall when the dogwoods were in bloom. The contrast of their creamy white flowers against the rich red bark of the Sequoias is just lovely! In a couple of weeks they should be in full bloom, which would really be a sight to behold, since there are a great many of them in the North Grove.
Birds are abundant here, but are mostly heard and not seen, but with Debey’s ears with us, we did pretty well. We saw more White-headed Woodpeckers, some Yellow-rumped Warblers, heard the distinctive, long song of a Winter Wren, but never saw it, got great views of Red-breasted Nuthatches (finally, after hearing them all weekend!), saw 3 Brown Creepers, and, most exciting for me, had unobstructed close-in views of a Hermit Warbler (LIFER!).
Steller’s Jays screeched from the treetops, Gray Squirrels chirped in their rather bird-like manner, and we saw one tiny chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with conifer seeds. A pair of passing docents were kind enough to show us how to distinguish the branches of a young Giant Sequoia from an Incense Cedar (both grow here). The former is more 3-dimensional, and has a pronounced twist, while the Cedar is very flat. I really need to study my trees more, as I don’t know them worth beans, something that poses a problem when trying to describe where a bird is to fellow birders and conversely when trying to figure out where a bird they see is located!
Other than the dogwoods and some ribes sp., nothing much was blooming, as expected for this early date, but we did see signs of a forthcoming huge bloom of Pacific Starflower, as well as many leaves of White-veined Wintergreen, and a few early-blooming Mountain Violets.
Our walk ended about 90 minutes after it began, and we returned to the cabin to tidy up, lock it down, and retrieve the dogs.
Snow Plant in bud
Back at the cabin, Debey found a snow plant in bud down the driveway, and some tiny lilies that looked like Mission Bells, but were only perhaps 1/4 the size of the ones I’m used to seeing. The snow plant is a trippy little thing – scarlet red, it grows in the undergrowth of pines and such, synthesizing decaying material. As such, it has no green nor leaves to speak of.
John Muir has a great quote about this strange little flower:
“… it is a singularly cold and unsympathetic plant. Everybody admires it as a wonderful curiosity, but nobody loves it as lilies, violets, roses, daisies are loved. Without fragrance, it stands beneath the pines and firs lonely and silent, as if unacquainted with any other plant in the world; never moving in the wildest storms; rigid as if lifeless, though covered with beautiful rosy flowers”
Despite Muir’s apathy towards the snow plant, I quite like it, and am tickled every time I encounter it (not too often; I don’t believe it’s endangered, but I believe it is threatened. At least my Petersen “Pacific States Wildflowers” guide lists it as “Uncommon. Do not pick.”).
We left the cabin a little after noon and headed home, stopping off in Murphys for a couple of hours to do some wine-tasting at Stevenot Winery, and enjoy the cute little town.
This was a very satisfying trip to the cabin – I always love bringing new people up and sharing their enjoyment. Although Deb & Terry are quite experienced naturalists (much more so than me), they were thrilled to be in this area, one that few visitors to the Sierras experience.
|Birds seen (29 species, 1 life bird, 8 year birds):
– American Kestrel
* = life bird, + = year bird
– California Poppy