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Central California

11-31 October 2002

Part 9:  Eastman Lake

The next day’s destination was Eastman Lake, and I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised with the area compared to Millerton Lake (although I never went to the Madera County side of Millerton, and that is where the Brown Bin Book tells you to go).  This is a vast area of rolling oak savannah, and going in you follow the Chowchilla River, at this point just a dry little riverbed, but where there was water there were plenty of Mallards, Great Egrets, and the occasional Great Blue Heron.  This is also where all the Red-tailed Hawks go when they die, cuz I've never seen so many in one place in my life!! 

  

Chowchilla River and rocky oak savannah habitat coming in

        

Red-tailed Hawks (melanistic and normal)

Had I to do it again I'd probably hit the marvelous riparian area just below the dam first thing, but as it was I followed the main road in, stopping occasionally, and finally getting my favorite California bird, the first Yellow-billed Magpie of the trip!  At another stop a beautiful Red-breasted Sapsucker came bouncing in to an oak and promptly froze (which is why I usually miss them...).  The first trail I hiked was the Lakeview Trail, accessible from the group camp road; it was a mite strenuous, but did pick up a singing Varied Thrush in addition to the ubiquitous Acorn Woodpeckers, Oak Titmice, Bushtits, Juncos, etc.  An easier trail with similar habitat was accessible from an unnamed open area on the south side of the lake (there's a nice wide dirt road going in; it's probably a staging area for hunters).  Also had a huge flock of Killdeer in here.

      

Oak savannah habitat along the Lakeside Trail

          

View of the lake from the trail with Savannah Sparrow and Killdeer

This lake was incredibly low as well, but the ranger told me that they purposely drained it (for irrigation??  I'm not sure I got that part right).  Nevertheless the resulting varied shoreline (there were lots of rocky fingers and islands jutting out into the water) attracted several things as well as the open water fare: a scan revealed lots of coots and Eared and Western Grebes, and a large Canada Goose flock that would occasionally let loose with their honking.  In lesser numbers were White Pelicans, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, Least Sandpipers, and in the trees across the way, several Double-crested Cormorants.  A Prairie Falcon sitting on another tree across the lake was a nice addition, as well as a pair of yelling Greater Yellowlegs.  A shrike had me nervous, though, because at the angle I was looking at him (and he was pretty close, maybe 60 feet away), he looked awfully pale overall, his mask looked awfully thin and the base to his lower mandible looked pale.  A quick double-check of the Sibley told me what else to look for, and when I got the scope on him (at a much better angle light-wise) I could see he was clearly a Loggerhead; goes to show what tricks the lighting can play on you!

             

Suspicious-looking Loggerhead Shrike (taken through the scope) with view of dam and low water level; the lakes are used for irrigation so they get pretty empty by this time of year!

Over at the day use area I hiked down below the aforementioned dam, where there's a hidden pond just below the dam where two Black-crowned Night Herons were hiding!  Sitting and listening for five added great looks at a Belted Kingfisher that came rattling in, a teetering Spotted Sandpiper, a buzzy Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and what I thought was a Myrtle Warbler at first but was probably a hybrid: it had the harsher chip and whitish throat of the Myrtle, but there was just the slightest wash of color on the throat, and the mask wasn't very strong.  Both Canyon and Rock Wrens called from the dam, and a House Wren was hidden somewhere in the willows.

   

Road to the dam with bat house

           

Riparian area and pond below the dam with silhouetted Bald Eagle and Rock Wren

The real treat was continuing on down the road, though: a pretty Ferruginous Hawk was soaring overhead, so I pulled into a parking area just to listen for a few and see if anything else was around.  I was just about ready to get back into the car when a big, beautiful adult Bald Eagle went pumping past!  Almost immediately after that a buteo of some kind came tearing in (he was directly in the sun), making a power dive for the eagle I thought, but he just landed in a nearby tree.

Down at the Chowchilla Rec Area, there's another boat ramp where I scanned this side of the lake (but not before shooting some adorable little Rock Wrens that came right up to the car!).  I wish I could have had a video attached to my scope that this point, because a young Red-tailed Hawk came tearing in and caught himself a squirrel, followed immediately by an opportunistic Raven!  That Raven did everything he could to try and annoy the hawk, including inching up behind him sideways and taking a quick nip at his tail feathers!  (The hawk's parents were circling and squealing overhead as if to say, "Don't let him bully you, son!")  The hawk lunged at him a couple of times, and once even went after him (but quickly bounded back to his squirrel before the raven could get it), but for the most part he finished his meal; the raven flew off with a little nugget, so he was happy (his mate was on the shoreline croaking in a very odd fashion the whole time; makes you wonder what he/she was saying...).  There was also a terrific trail here that was easy, with fantastic views of the lake and marvelous rock formations amongst the oaks; had exploding flocks of California Quail and a friendly Butterbutt on this trail.  Hiked a little of the Monument Ridge Trail, but that was pretty rough, and my feet were shot by the end of that one, but I did pick up a Red-shouldered Hawk that was upset at something....

           

Redtail/Raven scuffle at the Chowchilla Rec Area

                           

 Both types of Butterbutts occur here: Audubon’s (left) and Myrtle (right); can you tell them apart?

      

Views from the Monument Ridge Trail 

Headed out after that, stopping briefly for a flock of Savannah and Vesper Sparrows that gave good comparisons.  I was just planning to take a leisurely drive around the county until it was time to head for Oakhurst, picking up a magnificent Golden Eagle on the way out!  (I only made it up to highway 46 and over, but those rolling golden hills are sure gorgeous!) 

Continue to Yosemite NP

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