New Year’s morning found us recording our first bird as we packed the car at sunrise: American Crow. The Cassin’s Kingbirds (yes, Cassin’s) that were hanging out the afternoon before where not around. Natalie was feeling a tad worse (you decide why). Sadly, with our successful chase of the Yellow-billed Magpie the day before, we had found ourselves much further west than expected. We were over 2 hours away from our next destination.
Mount Pinos rises 8,847 feet above sea level and is the highest peak in Ventura County. As odd as it sounds, this place is quite the spot for some winter sports. Locals head here in the winter time for cross-country skiing, snowboarding and some downhill.
Birders, on the other hand, use this place as what is quite possibly the most reliable place in the universe for White-headedWoodpecker. The altitude also provides opportunities for Stellar’s Jays and nature’s little charmers, the Mountain Chickadee. With Nat needing the White-head, and us looking to cover different habitats, this place was perfect.
After a nice brunch in Frazier Park, we ascended the mountain. The snow gate at the base was open suggesting that snow conditions were fair for traveling. Reaching the secluded McGill Campground, we were greeted by…..
…dozens of cars and hundreds of people. Grills. The smell of hot dogs. It was a god-damned party. The scene was surreal and completely unexpected as we were not aware of the winter activities on the mountain. We didn’t know of the winter sport perspective until we researched it later!
Rest assured, you have not lived until you have seen a toddler in snow pants sitting on a 3” drift and acting like it is the coolest thing (sorry for the pun) in the world. It gets even more funny when they sled down the embankment on one of those saucer sleds with snow that is not much more than a dusting. As Midwesterners, Natalie and I could only laugh as we watched the Californians enjoying the snow like they had never seen it before. That said, maybe they never had!
In any case, the White-headed Woodpecker was seen not one minute after stepping out of the car. It was new for Nat. The giant white wing patches and the white head gleaming in the sun as it flew overhead made an identification a cinch. Another view later made for a perfect trip. It is has been suggested that this species of woodpecker is one of the least studied in North America. Seems like researchers should head to Mount Pinos. The Mountain Chickadee was scored easy. Stellar’s Jay, too. Nice.
Looking to move along and get away from the party, we opted to head up the mountain further. Bad idea. Every pull-off was full. People were pulling over wherever they could. It seemed like every person from Ventura County had driven to what we had presumed would be out private little mountain. So much for our secluded birding.
Descending the mountain, we headed to an unoccupied campground at a lower altitude. While this is a great location for Mountain Quail, it would have a bit of luck on our part if we saw one as it was not the breeding season. In any case, it was nice to walk the grounds and not worry about the party happening further up the mountain.
While we descended the mountain, the traffic still ascending was simply outrageous. I can easily say we passed 50 cars. Probably double that. Add to that the hundreds already up there with, say, three people per car. Pow. Millions of people.
Let me take a minute and be clear – I’m not complaining. Natalie didn’t either. We were just caught off guard. I’m all in favor of people heading outside and making a day of it. Birders enjoy rare birds. Astronomers enjoy rare celestial events. Why can’t folks living in the desert enjoy a little snow now and then. More power to them. Just don’t trash the place.
After a 20-second stop in Frazier Park to confirm the swimming pool-sized pond did not have Cinnamon Teal (a needed bird for Nat), we pressed on to Ridgecrest, California for lodging. We aborted the chance to visit Jawbone Canyon as the roads were getting worse and light was fleeting. As expected, the beer scene in town sucked. The one ale house where we stood a chance for a craft beer was closed as it was New Year’s Day. We managed an average dinner at a pleasant diner.