Month: June 2021 (Page 1 of 2)

10,000 Feet High in the Eastern Sierra

Koenig Lake Eastern Sierras California

Serenity at Koenig Lake

10,000 Feet High in the Eastern Sierra

We recently snuck in a weekend camping trip to the beautiful Eastern Sierra. It’s a long drive from West L.A. (and even longer when you’re driving in a caravan with families who need a stop every 90 minutes, and then sit down at the restaurant for lunch instead of eating sandwiches on the road). But like any trip to the great outdoors, the drive is usually worth it. Our specific destination was Leavitt Lake. It’s BLM land camping (no toilets), and getting there requires an actual 4×4 vehicle to negotiate the 3 mile dirt “road” to the lake. Indeed, we didn’t even take our AWD Highlander down the road because we weren’t convinced it would make it unscathed.

But we got there with the help of our slow-highway-driving-in-real-4×4-vehicle friends. The lake is at 10,000 feet elevation. Though we’re in the middle of extreme drought, and there’s virtually no snowpack in the Sierra this year, there were still patches of snow around and above the lake.  The best part of the weekend was an exploration walk that I took with my 14 year-old to find Koenig Lake (pictured above). We knew which direction it was from where we’d camped, and my son brought the necessary enthusiasm. It can be a little slow going at 10,000 feet when the path gets steep, but we found the little lake and were rewarded with jaw-dropping beauty.

Clark's Nutcracker Leavitt Lake

Clark’s Nutcrackers were all over the place

There was a small chance for some lifers around the lake. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are spotted sporadically in the area, though I wasn’t sure we were actually high enough to see them during June (we didn’t). Pine Grosbeaks can also be found in the Sierra, but we were probably too high to luck into one of them (we didn’t). Black-backed Woodpeckers move around the area, too, but there weren’t enough trees, much less recently burned trees, to see one of them (we didn’t). And we could’ve made a stop along the way to get Sagebrush Sparrow, but I wasn’t going to add to the family’s car time.

Still, there were some birds around. Clark’s Nutcrackers were the most numerous, and most vocal. Cassin’s Finches and Mountain Chickadee were regulars, too. On the walk up to Koenig Lake, my son and I saw two Golden Eagles soaring through the valley. The ravens spotted them, too, and harassed them away. While wandering around the area, I also found a male/female pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers, which are always a high-elevation treat. 

Williamson's Sapsucker Leavitt Lake California

A female Williamson’s Sapsucker sneaks around the pine trees

There were also White-breasted Nutchatches, American Robins, a single White-crowned Sparrow, an unexpected Cliff Swallow, and a breeding-plumaged Yellow-rumped Warbler, among the other birds I identified around Leavitt Lake. 


On the drive home, we stopped at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of the World War II internment camps where Japanese immigrants, and American citizens of Japanese heritage, were imprisoned. The population at Manzanar at its peak was 10,000 people. There aren’t any original buildings left, but they have reconstructed a couple of barracks and a mess hall. There’s a fantastic visitor center with a lot of stories and artifacts, and a big wall listing the names of the residents/prisoners. One of the parents on the camping trip has Japanese ancestry, and her grandfather was imprisoned during World War II in Hawaii. Growing up around only white folks, I never got to hear the kinds of stories my kids hear from our diverse collection of friends. 

Birds on Wire, Manzanar, Ansel Adams

Birds on Wire, Evening, Manzanar, by Ansel Adams

Perhaps the most impactful part of the visit was simply being there on a 97 degree day with the wind blowing 25 miles per hour. It almost kept us from stopping and strolling around for a few minutes, and we had an air-conditioned car and visitor center to relieve us from our suffering. The visitor center testifies to the amazing spirit of the imprisoned (even if it does distract you from the terrible big picture). If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend stopping at Manzanar.

Costa Rica (2019) #8: Above and around Savegre Hotel

Always bring (extra) binoculars

Birding the trails above and around Savegre Hotel

It certainly isn’t ideal to recount incredible days of birding more than 2 years after they happened. But it has been a delight to revisit our trip to Costa Rica, and to drag it out over these many months of varying degrees of isolation. As I’ve mentioend, there are amazing birds on the grounds of the Savegre hotel itself. And the Resplendent Quetzal is just a short drive up the road. But that’s just a part of the astounding birding in the Savegre River valley. The miles of trails above and around the Savegre Hotel are not to be missed. I mean, did you know there is a kind of bird called a chlorosphingus? And that it used to be called a bush tanager, but is now thought to be a brush finch? Buckle up, because there are many more long bird names ahead.

The first morning in Savegre Valley my son and I headed up the trails above the lodge. I thought this was the way to the quetzal. But it wasn’t. It nevertheless was good birding. The trail starts as a road, and the hill is a bit steep heading up from the hotel. But it’s not far until a trial or two branches off the road into the forest. We took the first offramp, for the Canto de Aves trail, which loops back to the road. From there, we explored a bit of the Quebrada trail, but didn’t do the whole loop. Each are magical trails full of birds. As everywhere else in Costa Rica, there were lifers around every curve. We saw a Spangle-cheeked Tanager and a Black-cheeked Warbler, a Flame-throated Warbler and a Black-capped Flycatcher. Yellow-thighed Brushfinches worked the edges of the trail. Our best find of the hike, the relatively short-named Highland Tinamou, rumbled through the brush down a steep slope. It evaded being photographed, but I got good looks through the binoculars.

The Quebrada Trail’s beauty brought my wife to tears

Later that afternoon, we took a family hike down the Sendero Catarata (waterfall trail). This trail leads from the hotel downstream. It’s a great, level hike with a cool bridge and a rewarding waterfall. The boys climbed a cliff covered in vines. And, of course, more birds. I added 5 lifers on this hike, including Mountain Elaenia, Yellowish Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush (I told you the names were long!) and Yellow-bellied Siskin. I even got my first ever photograph of, and only my second ever look at, a Golden-winged Warbler.

Root climbing along the Sendero Catarata

We went back to the trails above the lodge the next day, this time as a full family hike. The highlights included the Northern Emerald-Toucanet, and tracking down a  Collared Trogon. We heard the trogon calling from the forest along the trail, but couldn’t find it. One of us walked down the windy trail until he was sure he was past the bird. I walked the other way until I was sure I was past it. Then, our sharp-eyed 12 year old searched in the middle and, as he always does, found the bird. It took nearly 15 minutes to get eyes on the bird. It always amazes me how birds can call out repeatedly, from 10-20 yards away, and remain hidden. In the thick forest, moving just a foot or two left or right can reveal, or obscure, a bird perched in the canopy.

All around the hotel, the trails are great. In a couple of places, you come across suspension bridges like this one. Not only are they thrilling to walk across, they put you at the top of the canopy, for clearer views of birds you otherwise strain your neck to see. 

Collared Redstart Suenos del Bosque Costa Rica

An up-close encounter on the bridge with a Collared Redstart

If you ever make it to San Gerardo de Dota and the Savegre River Valley, allocate 2-3 nights to allow yourself to take it all in and a proper pace. And if you are into fishing, or eating delicious trout, this spot is world-famous for that, too.

Yellow-winged Vireo Savegre Lodge Costa Rica

Yellow-winged Vireo

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