CalNat Yosemite – Day 5 (Birding)

Today began with an exploration of frost.  This wasn’t part of the program’s itinerary, but was part of what being a naturalist is – taking time to study and be in awe of nature, and communicating that to others.  So, I’m sharing my wonder with frost to you, as I was in wonder of it this morning when I went on a short trail run.

The very architecture of ice is something to marvel at.  The most intricate of designs in miniature, beautifully fragile.  As the sun first hits it around sunrise, bringing the crystals out of shadow, the display is dazzling.  No other word does justice.  Each leaf, branch, and piece of bark seems outlined in gems, glittering in the dawn light.  Light seems to shimmer, seems to move, and the movement creates a silent song.  How could you not be breathless at the sight? But, frost is also a bit of craftsmanship made temporary, only coming into bloom when temperature is harsh.  When the sun hits it, it melts away – making it a piece of art only available for a breath, so a reminder to us all to stop and appreciate the gifts found in nature any moment we can, and that moment should be now.  Frost is a recalling away from always being so much in a hurry.  Frost is a call to slowness and pause.

The rest of the day was equally spectacular.  We spent the entire day birding with the marvelous Pete Devine from the Yosemite Conservancy.  We hiked on a loop trail leading to the Wawona Swinging Bridge.  We were quite the nerdy, birding group with binoculars on our necks, eyes keen to catch the flit of a wing, and ear tuned to catch any note of a bird call.  Best of all, we were all of like mind, so our group stopped frequently and for a good duration just to stare up into the trees in hopes of catching sight of a bird, stopping suddenly and going quiet to listen for them, and even just bending down to marvel at a congregation of lady bird beetles.

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After a break for lunch by the river, we had an interpretation activity.  We were spread out along the trail at stations, and then others in the group came to us one-by-one or in pairs to hear our factoids.  Eventually each of us had learned a lesson from everyone in our group, and all while on the trail.  It was a great learning device to engage our group in, not only because it taught us something about birds or mammals in Yosemite, but also because it taught us that we can become experts in delivering a naturalist message in a short amount of time.  When you give your talk the first time, it feels awkward and you feel nervous (or at least I did) but by the 3rd or 4th time, it started to feel something natural… you start to feel a bit like a naturalist.

We saw / heard quite a few things too, including: ruby-crowned kinglet, golden-crowned kinglet, Stellar jays, red-tailed hawks, ravens, mountain chickadees, and black phoebes.  The crowning moment was hearing and then seeing a pileated woodpecker (the one Woody the Woodpecker is modeled after).  And – I saw my first buck in the wild! (These guys were mule deer bucks).

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Due to what I learned today, top on my bird “hope to see” list is the American Dipper.  This was John Muir’s favorite bird in the Sierra, and he refers to it as a “ouzel” or “water thrush” in his writings.  This bird is a drab (although I think beautiful) grey, about the size of a robin, but has a short stubby tail.  It is a pretty incredible bird : it does not have webbed feet but swims under water with its wings, it faces upstream while swimming to catch insects or fish, it tilts itself up slightly when it wants to surface and lets the water flow naturally push it upward, and it can walk on the creek bottom (under water) while looking for food.  It is whimsical in its tendency to follow the path of glaciers in terms of where it has habitat.  Best of all, it has the peculiar behavior of dipping at its knees – perhaps to warm itself up?  Regardless, it is a charming little dance, and one I now use to warm myself up when hiking out in November temperatures.

Off to (what I hope) are dreams of American Dippers and the architecture of frost.

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