Unsatisfying Birding in Tahoe

By josh • Landscapes, Nature, Wildlife • 13 Sep 2013

*sigh*  It was certainly the burden of high expectations that made our trip to the Lake Tahoe area so disappointing from a birding perspective.  My wanderlust has been such that I’d worked myself into quite a frenzy for this trip, and I’d been poring over eBird for months to try to guess at what birdy treasures might await in the eastern Sierra.

The trip itself was grand.  The boys traveled much better than expected, and nearly every place we visited once we left Reno was new and exciting and worth the effort of getting there.  I decided I’d start listing as soon as I got off the plane, so my first three Nevada birds were, predictably, Brewer’s Blackbird, Rock Pigeon, and House Sparrow in a shopping center parking lot.

It became clear by midweek that circumstances (some within my control, some without) had conspired to make my birding experiences frustrating and unsatisfying.  On balance I shouldn’t complain- 13 lifers in a week is not trivial, even when arriving in an ecosystem that you haven’t visited since you started listing.  Given the habitat diversity in the neighborhood, though, I had hoped for 20-25 new species.  Lifers aside, I’d hoped for some good views of species that I see rarely.  I hoped that the trip would be birdy and as exciting and interesting as the places we were visiting.

Sand Harbor State Park

Sand Harbor State Park, Nevada
August, 2013
Tamron AF18–250mm f/3.5–6.3 AF Di II at 18mm, f/5, 1/500s, ISO200

The birding, though, was poor.  Here are some reasons:

1) August. Quite reasonably, our travel date was decided by non-birding considerations.  It seems that August doldrums are no different in the Sierra than they are on the East Coast- in fact, without knowing where (if anywhere) to look for migrating shorebirds, there really wasn’t much activity of any kind.  Juveniles were fledged, breeding activity had ceased, little migration was evident, and birds were seemingly keeping to themselves in the way that they do in late summer.  This seasonal dullness was compounded by…

2) my lack of knowledge and preparation.  Despite trying to familiarize myself with the birds that I was likely to see, many of the birds I saw and heard over the course of the week went unidentified.  Juvenile plumage caused me a great deal of frustration, particularly with hummingbirds.  I had to assume that nearly every sound I heard in the woods was a Mountain Chickadee or a Steller’s Jay, but who knows how many other lurking things might have been making those noises? With the birds being more reclusive than usual, many lacking bright adult plumage, and little singing or other breeding activity happening, I didn’t really have a chance.

Steller's Jay

Steller’s Jay
Vikingsholm, Emerald Bay, El Dorado County, California
August, 2013
Tamron AF18–250mm f/3.5–6.3 AF Di II at 231mm, f/9, 1/160s, ISO200

3) The Rim Fire.  Yosemite was burning that week, and the air was filled with acrid smoke that obscured our views of the lake and seemed to cause the birds to hunker down or move elsewhere.  This suspicion was confirmed at Squaw Valley, where the tram operator told us that they normally saw Golden Eagles every day but hadn’t seen any since the smoke arrived.

Ellis Peak Summit

Ellis Peak Summit
Placer County, California
August, 2013
Tamron AF18–250mm f/3.5–6.3 AF Di II at 42mm, f/14, 1/50s, ISO200

4) Low water at Washoe Lake.  The one time I managed to get up very early and go birding by myself I headed for Washoe Lake near Carson City.  Had I been reading the local listserv I might have known that the water level at the lake was very low and that the wetland mitigation area where I had planned to bird was nearly dry.  I ended up spending most of the time I had allotted wandering around looking for any signs of life, or at least any area of moisture where I could hope to find the target wader species I was after.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier
Washoe Lake Wetland Mitigation Area, Nevada
August, 2013
Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/8, 1/400s, ISO500

5) Time of day.  Most of the times that I got out in the woods or down to the lake it was mid-day and I had one or more impatient small children or adults with other priorities with me.  Paige Meadows was birdless except a few juncos- I can’t imagine that would have been the case if I’d been there at dawn.  One evening there was a lot of activity in the meadow up the hill from our rental, but A was with me and he wanted to be on the move.

6) Ambition.  This may have been my biggest mistake.  I had a list of target species as long as my arm.  I was too unfocused to really concentrate on some of the ID challenges I encountered, and I wasted a great deal of time wandering aimlessly in the hopes of running into new species rather than slowing down and enjoying my birding.  At Washoe Lake I practically ran (or hobbled as fast as I could with tripod and bins and field guide in tow) around the place rather than stopping to enjoy my first ever looks at Western Meadowlark and White-Faced Ibis.  I hurried past jaw-dropping encounters with Northern Harriers that I could never get at home. Tsk-tsk.

California Gull

California Gull
Sand Harbor State Park, Nevada
August, 2013
Tamron AF18–250mm f/3.5–6.3 AF Di II at 231mm, f/16, 1/500s, ISO200

Hey, a lifer is a lifer, right?  Even when it’s a California Gull or a Mountain Chickadee.  A Sooty Grouse at 9000′ is a bit more respectable though; I had to work hard for that one.  Lifers for the trip:

  • Mountain Chickadee (Tahoe City, California)
  • White-headed Woodpecker (Tahoe City)
  • California Gull (Tahoe City)
  • Western Meadowlark (Washoe Lake, Nevada)
  • Black-billed Magpie (Washoe Lake)
  • White-faced Ibis (Washoe Lake)
  • Cassin’s Vireo (Desolation Wilderness, California)
  • Western Tanager (Emerald Bay State Park, California)
  • Band-tailed Pigeon (Emerald Bay State Park)
  • Hammond’s Flycatcher (Blackwood Canyon, California)
  • Golden Eagle (Ellis Peak, California)
  • Sooty Grouse (Ellis Peak)
  • Pygmy Nuthatch (Tahoe City)

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3 Responses

  1. Pingback: Marginalia » 251 Birds- Tahoe; Plovers in Charlotte

  2. Pingback: 251 Birds » Blog Archive » An Odd Gap Filled

  3. Jennifer Turner

    Just love your commentary! I LOVE birds…but have no idea how to start watching…and identifying….your description is just wonderful!

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