Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution

Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution

by Ted Beedy

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This beautifully illustrated and user-friendly book presents the most up-to-date information available about the natural histories of birds of the Sierra Nevada, the origins of their names, the habitats they prefer, how they communicate and interact with one another, their relative abundance, and where they occur within the region. Each species account features


This beautifully illustrated and user-friendly book presents the most up-to-date information available about the natural histories of birds of the Sierra Nevada, the origins of their names, the habitats they prefer, how they communicate and interact with one another, their relative abundance, and where they occur within the region. Each species account features original illustrations by Keith Hansen.

In addition to characterizing individual species, Birds of the Sierra Nevada also describes ecological zones and bird habitats, recent trends in populations and ranges, conservation efforts, and more than 160 rare species. It also includes a glossary of terms, detailed maps, and an extensive bibliography with over 500 citations.

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Birds of the Sierra Nevada

Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution

By Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino, Keith Hansen


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95447-2


Ecological Zones and Bird Habitats

The Sierra offers an extraordinary variety of bird habitats, from the rolling foothill grasslands, through oak studded savannas and giant conifer forests, up to alpine meadows and chilly, windswept peaks, and over the crest to the lakes, forests, and sagebrush flats of the East Side as well as Joshua tree woodlands of the southern desert regions. No wonder Sierra bird life is so varied! The West Side boasts an elevation gradient unequaled in the 48 contiguous states, spanning nearly 14,000 feet from the lowest foothills to the highest peaks (see Map 2). Most of the Sierra lies west of the divide, and the East Side drops off sharply to the Great Basin. On this steep eastern escarpment, altitudinal vegetation zones overlap extensively, making them less apparent than on the West Side. North of Lake Tahoe the main crest is flanked on both sides by other ridges and the elevation of the crest itself is lower, making the distinction between the western and eastern Sierra less obvious. The Kern Plateau in southeastern Tulare County is an area that does not fit neatly into the zones described below. It includes ecological elements from both sides and is an area where species normally associated with the East Side (e.g., Pinyon Jay) occur on the West Side, and where other species are found at much higher altitudes than elsewhere in the Sierra (e.g., Lawrence's Goldfinch).

In this book we have recognized seven major ecological zones: Foothill, Lower Conifer, Upper Conifer, Subalpine, Alpine, East Side, and Desert (see Table 1; Map 3). Note that the elevation ranges are approximate and overlap considerably. Local differences in slope, soils, rainfall, and other factors alter the exact range of any ecological zone. As discussed in this chapter, most of these zones include several distinct bird habitats. Sierra watersheds and key locations are shown in Map 4. Common and scientific names of all plant species are provided in Appendix 4.


Annual Grasslands

North <500 to 2,000 feet; South <500 to 2,500 feet

Many travelers pass through annual grasslands without registering them as "habitat." This open (less than 10 percent tree cover), gently rolling terrain is parched to a golden brown in summer but transforms to vivid green in late fall through early spring. Patches of this habitat in the Sierra are found in eastern Tehama and Butte Counties and westernmost El Dorado County, but the largest expanses are found from western Tuolumne County south into Kern County. Because no naturalists were present in pre-European times to document the conditions, we do not know what plant species dominated this landscape, and there is considerable controversy about whether perennial grasses or forbs were the most abundant plants. Even before European settlement, Native Americans had been managing these areas with fire for thousands of years. In any case, they are now dominated by introduced grasses brought by European settlers. A high diversity of indigenous plants still survive in vernal pools or intermixed with the non-native species. In many areas woodland and chaparral were cleared to create grazing land and are now annual grasslands. In spring, wildflowers still flourish in the foothills, and specialized blooms form rings around the receding waters of vernal pools. Recent research has shown that cattle grazing—by far the dominant land use in this habitat—is actually beneficial for most native vernal pool plants and most grassland birds, at least partly because grazing keeps aggressively invasive plants like star thistle and medusa head in check and prevents thatch buildup that inhibits growth of many native plants.

Wintering Horned Larks and American Pipits flock together in grazed pastures and plowed furrows, and Savannah Sparrows forage in the deeper grasses, each species constantly wary of the risk of a Prairie Falcon attack. Annual grasslands provide abundant food and cover for high numbers of rodents and other small mammals and therefore support an impressive variety of raptors with winter migrants augmenting resident Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels and species like Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks visiting only from fall through early spring. In spring, American Kestrels, Western Kingbirds, and Loggerhead Shrikes stake out territories on fence lines or on "tombstones" of ancient metamorphic rock that rise abruptly here and there. The lovely songs of Western Meadowlarks can be heard almost any month of the year. On hot afternoons Turkey Vultures float lazily above low ridges and hillsides.

Oak Savannas

North < 500 to 3,000 feet; South <500 to 2,500 feet

Savannas dominated by blue oak occupy more than a million acres of the Sierra foothills. These habitats have 10 to 30 percent tree cover and vary from grasslands with a few widely spaced trees to denser stands that may also support interior live oaks, California buckeyes, and occasional gray pines. The extent of oak savanna in the foothills has been reduced through conversion to developed and agricultural land uses, woodcutting, and historical efforts to improve grazing land by clearing trees. Range managers have now learned that having oaks on the land actually improves the forage for cattle by allowing the shaded grasses to retain water.

This quintessentially California landscape is threatened by a widespread lack of natural regeneration of oaks. Although the impacts of grazing have certainly affected the ability of these trees to reproduce, it has been shown that simply removing grazers does not aid regeneration. Other factors, like competition with nonnative plants for scarce water (mainly at the seedling or sapling stages), are also critical to oak survival. In fact, removing grazers entirely can inhibit oak regeneration because of the deep thatch and explosion of invasive weeds that usually follows. Encouraging results have been seen with a combination of protection of seedlings and saplings from grazing and management of competing vegetation, followed by a well-managed grazing regimen. Western Scrub-Jays have historically been the main agents of oak regeneration because acorns they bury but fail to recover have a good chance of germinating; since acorns do not roll uphill, jays and squirrels must move them there. Oaks have evolved a boom-and-bust cycle of acorn production to guarantee that in boom years there will be far too many acorns for the jays to consume.

Oak savannas provide perching and nesting sites for several species of raptors as well as for a stunning variety of songbirds like Lark Sparrows, Western Kingbirds, Bullock's Orioles, and Western Meadowlarks. As the oaks age or die, they provide essential nesting habitat for a variety of cavity nesters such as Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Oak Titmice, Ash-throated Flycatchers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Bewick's Wrens, and both Violet-green and Tree Swallows. Some winters, large numbers of richly colored Lewis's Woodpeckers visit oak savannas.

Oak Woodlands

North 1,500 to 4,500 feet; South 2,000 to 5,500 feet

Above the grasslands and oak savannas, denser oak groves of more than 30 percent tree cover crowd the hillsides of the western Sierra. In addition to blue and interior live oaks, three other species dominate: valley oaks, California black oaks, and canyon live oaks. All are long-lived and sprout from their stem bases when cut or top-killed by fire. Otherwise, there are considerable differences in their ecology. Valley oaks are large deciduous trees that dominate some riparian forests and open woodlands on fertile, deep soils. Similar to blue oaks, valley oaks suffer from limited recruitment of saplings. Blue oaks tolerate thinner soils and drier conditions than valley oaks and are the most likely oak to be found in uplands well away from drainages. Interior and canyon live oaks are evergreens and vary in growth from low shrubs to large trees. In steep ravines and river canyons these oaks cling to rocky slopes, while toyon, California bay laurel, and redbud grow in cooler glades below. Gray pines, with their wispy, gray green needles, grow along with the oaks in the northern and central Sierra and in the extreme south.

In spring, oak woodlands come alive with the songs of Orange-crowned and Black-throated Gray Warblers, and the roughly whistled notes of Ash-throated Flycatchers. The Hutton's Vireo's monotonously repetitive song is a frequent sound in stands dominated by live oaks. White-breasted Nuthatches search the deeply furrowed bark of these trees and sound their nasal, hornlike calls. Northern Pygmy-Owls hide in these canyons by day and emerge at dusk to hunt for songbirds. In the Mother Lode country of the central Sierra, Highway 49 cuts through broad expanses of foothill woodland and chaparral, where one might still spot a Greater Roadrunner. On nearly any turnout, the strident calls of Western Scrub-Jays or Oak Titmice can be heard. California Quail work through tangles of poison oak, and Acorn Woodpeckers flash back and forth between trees, flycatching, chattering, and tending their acorn caches.

Foothill Chaparral

North <500 to 4,500 feet; South 500 to 5,500 feet

Impenetrable seas of brush cover hot, dry slopes the length of the Sierra foothills. Interspersed with foothill woodlands, chaparral vegetation generally occupies the steeper, more arid exposures, and the most extensive stands occur south of the San Joaquin River. Turnouts along the new Priest Grade (Highway 120), near Ash Mountain in Sequoia National Park (Highway 198), and the near vertical slopes above the South Fork Kern River (Highway 178) provide easy places to view these habitats. Visitors to foothill chaparral will notice pungent odors of chamise, whiteleaf manzanita, buckbrush, coffeeberry, and shrubby oaks filling the air. These shrubs grow together in thickets forbidding to people but offering shade and shelter to birds. Chaparral birds usually sing, defend territories, and forage in the cool, early morning hours.

Presunrise visits to these arid shrublands are often rewarded by a chorus of Common Poorwills, Wrentits, California Thrashers, Lazuli Buntings, and Spotted and California Towhees. As early as January, Anna's Hummingbirds defend patches of shrubs with squeaky calls, and in spring Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and "Bell's" Sage Sparrows (in chamise chaparral) raise their families within this protective cover. Birds can be particularly abundant in foothill chaparral habitats because they exist below the snow zone and because many native shrubs, such as toyon and poison oak, produce fruits that attract such species as American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and Hermit Thrushes.

Foothill chaparral is a fire-prone system and the health and diversity of this habitat depends on fire. Many of the shrubs can survive fire and sprout from their burned stumps. Many others produce seeds than can only germinate after a fire. This habitat goes through a postfire succession, analogous to that of conifer forests, but at a much-accelerated pace. The open ground following a fire soon fills with a dazzling array of wild flowers. In the first postfire years birds like Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Lazuli Buntings, and Lawrence's Goldfinches find conditions perfect. As the chaparral grows denser over time, new species appear and others depart. When the habitat becomes heavily overgrown and the shrubs reach their maximum height and density, bird diversity tends to decline, awaiting the next fire to begin the cycle again.


Ponderosa Pine Forests

North 2,000 to 6,000 feet; South 2,500 to 7,000 feet

Rising above the heat and haze of the Foothill zone, the Lower Conifer zone is where many people first feel they have reached the mountains. Breezes rustle the trees and, though hot in summer, these forests are distinctly cooler than the lowlands. They also receive more rainfall and snow, enabling them to survive the summer drought. Historically, ponderosa pines were the most common and widespread trees in the Lower Conifer zone because they tolerate hotter and drier climates than most other West Side conifers. Also called "mid-montane conifer forests" by some authors, a variety of other conifers including incense cedars, white firs, Douglas-firs, and sugar pines may now outnumber the ponderosas in mixed stands depending on fire history, elevation, and local conditions.

Before European settlement, these forests experienced frequent, low- to mid-intensity wildfires (primarily surface fires) that were a major factor influencing stand density, structure, and species composition. A policy of fire exclusion, or suppression, during the 20th century, along with the selective harvest of many large pines, has significantly changed fire behavior and led to an increase in fire severity and the number of infrequent but high-intensity, stand-destroying fires. In areas where fire has been prevented for many years, shade-tolerant white firs and incense cedars often outnumber the pines and oaks. In many ponderosa pine forests, kit-kit-dizze (a member of the rose family) covers the forest floor, and its pungent odor permeates the forest and clings to boots and clothing, earning it another name: "mountain misery."

Large snags (i.e., greater than 24 inches diameter-at-breast-height) and decaying portions of living trees offer nesting cavities for Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Western Screech-Owls. A variety of woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers patrol the bark of conifers, while Warbling Vireos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Western Tanagers make music from above. Near campgrounds and other developed areas, Steller's Jays squawk and patrol their picnic tables, and Brewer's Blackbirds strut across the pavement.


Excerpted from Birds of the Sierra Nevada by Edward C. Beedy, Edward R. Pandolfino, Keith Hansen. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Edward C. Beedy was a co-author of Discovering Sierra Birds and has authored numerous technical publications and articles on Sierra birds.
Edward R. Pandolfino is President of Western Field Ornithologists and a Regional Editor for Northern California for North American Birds.
Keith Hansen is a professional bird artist who illustrated Discovering Sierra Birds, Distributional Checklist of North American Birds, Birds of Yosemite and the East Slope, California Wild Lands, A Guide to the Nature Conservancy Preserves, and The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, among other books.

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