Monday, July 16, 2018

Backpacking and Bird Atlasing Nevada County

Two years ago while on the Pacific Crest Trail we passed through Nevada County, California. Our friends Steve and Diane Rose are conducting a five year effort to atlas all the breeding birds in the county, so we tallied birds as we passed through. But it was a short visit, lasting barely over 24 hours before we had moved on beyond the border. We promised to come back and help more, but the record snow in 2017 delayed that plan until this year. There are 110 five by five kilometer blocks in the county and many are in relatively remote backcountry. Some of the blocks have been barely touched and were in need of a summer census for breeding species. This also gave us an excuse to do some hiking in new territory.

First up was a three day point-to-point hike from Donner Summit to points north. We passed up and over the east shoulder of Castle Peak and continued on to Warren Lake. From there we took a cross-country route over the crest connecting to Paradise Lake, then dropped down the valley to hook up to the PCT for a couple miles. Turning back to the northeast, we passed White Rock Lake on our way up to the summit of Mt. Lola. This summit is the only significant land in the county above 9000 feet elevation and it was unknown what species were up there. From the top we headed down Cold Stream where Steve and Diane rescued us at a northern trailhead.

Hike Track Link

High Country near Castle Peak
This is high summer in the high country and most montane species are busy breeding and raising young. At the high point near Castle Peak we had calling Evening Grosbeaks, always a treat. On the north side of the peak we traversed a glacial carved bowl with considerable riparian wet meadows. Lazuli Buntings were abundant, seemingly singing from every third bush. Crossing a ridge and descending down to Warren Lake we found a nice campsite at the inlet end of the lake near a long riparian creek corridor. With some time in the afternoon for observation we were able to watch several pairs of Wilson's Warbler busily feeding young and found the nest of a Olive-sided Flycatcher high in a Hemlock tree.

Looking north from the east shoulder of Castle Peak

Frog Lake far below to the east

Castle Peak

Elephant's Head 

Traversing the north side of Castle Peak
Castle Peak

Large areas of riparian habitat

Looking west from the ridge below Basin Peak to Devil's Oven and Paradise Lakes

Looking back at Castle Peak basin

Descending to Warren Lake

Warren Lake
Morning two had us climbing the divide to the west mostly cross-country with considerable bush-whacking. Following what appeared to be the most logical approach to the crest we ended up just short of the top at a short class 3 climb. Thankfully Susan swallowed her acrophobia and scurried up to the top right behind me.

The climb west of Warren Lake

A class 3 finish to the ridge

Up, up, up!

Warren Lake below

Warren Lake
We arrive at the top and just below to the west is Paradise Lake. While taking a snack break and collecting water we watch a family group of Spotted Sandpipers cavort around the lake. From the lake we drop down the valley into a lovely meadow complete with a calling Pileated Woodpecker and bunches of Nashville Warblers and Lincoln Sparrows. At the bottom is the PCT junction and we turn north.

Paradise Lake

A meadow in Paradise Valley

View to the west from the PCT
Our end point for the day is White Rock Lake, a mile northeast of the PCT and at the base of the climb to the top of Mt. Lola. We'll save that for the next day.

Cruising North to White Rock Lake

White Rock Lake with Mt Lola beyond

Camp at White Rock Lake
Our third and final day for this trip had one major goal - survey Mt. Lola and especially the tabletop summit above 9000 feet elevation. The trail to the top was gentle enough and pleasant in the cool of the morning. This south side was dry and mostly open but we had some good birds including Red Crossbill and a family group of six Sooty Grouse.

Looking down to White Rock Lake on the approach to Mt Lola

Climbing the south side of Mt Lola

The view south

Great flowers as we approach the summit
The nearly flat summit of the mountain was about a quarter mile across so we split up and spent some time looking for breeding birds. The views from the top were magnificent. There were no magical sightings on top, like a rosy-finch or pipit, but we did have more Sooty Grouse, a pair of Mountain Bluebirds feeding young in a nest, and Brewer's Sparrows carrying food. It was fun poking around the top for an hour and enjoying the vistas.

The nearly flat top of Mt Lola, including some signs of human construction in the past.

The northern aspect of the mountain still held some snow
Our finish to the hike was pretty simple, take the northbound trail from the summit to the popular trailhead along Cold Stream at the Little Truckee River. As we passed the northern Nevada County border about a mile and a half down from the summit, our atlasing was done for the day.

Susan glissades down the snowfield to rejoin the trail

Fantastic flowers in the meadows of Cold Stream

Bird lists for the three days:

I-80--Donner Summit Rest Area
Frog Lake Overlook Trail
Warren Lake PM 
Warren Lake AM
Paradise Lake
Mt Lola

Not satisfied to just do the three day hike, we stayed for two more day hikes. The first was a point-to-point hike from an old mining area known as Summit City at Meadow Lake down to Blue Lake. For us not having to backtrack and getting transportation at both ends of the trek was fabulous. This route was about 11.5 miles with more downhill than up, another pleasure.

Hike Track Link

The weather was perfect for hiking, warm but overcast to keep away the hot sun. We cruised over the ridge to Baltimore Lake, then up and over another divide to look down on Beyers Lakes. Lots of Woodpeckers in this section with White-headed, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Williamson's and Red-breasted Sapsuckers.

Heading out from Summit City Site to the ridge above Baltimore Lake

Descending to Baltimore Lake

Baltimore Lake

The Beyers Lakes basin


Alpine Tiger Lily

The largest Beyers Lake

From there we dropped into a large meadow complex, complete with the expected Nashville and MacGillivray's Warblers, and plenty of Lincoln Sparrows. Continuing south and west we contoured the Grouse Ridge descending into a transitional oak and cedar habitat. Seeing Hammond's Flycatchers on territory, and hearing singing Purple Finch, were a treat. As we finished up the ridge to Blue Lake we bumped into a pair of Mountain Quail attending their young, very cool.

Meadow of Granite Creek

Giant Washington Lily

Finishing up
Bird Lists for the day:

Meadow Lake
Baltimore Lake
Beyers Lake
Blue Lake

Our final day hike was a big loop north of Grouse Ridge - a 12 miler with about 1500 feet of elevation change. It started with a big downhill, and of course finished with a big up.

Hike Track Link

Going counter-clockwise we traveled out through the wet meadows of Middle and Shotgun Lakes, then turned the corner and climbed up to Rock Lake. Here we found two hen Buffleheads, one with three young ducklings and one with an older one. Confirming breeding of Bufflehead in Nevada County is a big deal and we were happy to supply the sightings.

Looking north from Grouse Ridge

Middle Lake is just a large meadow

Shotgun Lake

Rock Lake
The return trip was more alpine but less birdy in the warm afternoon sun. But the scenery was enjoyable enough.

One of the Crooked Lakes

Island Lake from the ridge above

Bird Lists for the day:

Downey Lake
Rock Lake
Island Lake