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Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3) (1978)


Howard L. Ferguson

[click to enlarge]
“O to see like an eagle by day,
To hear like an owl in the dark,
To taste like a gull in salt spray,
To feel the air lift like a lark!”

  Joel Peters (1905), “Wishing”

Suddenly, there I was in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, just having witnessed that marvelously varied spectacle of songbird migration in the Smoky Mountains. Upon first arrival to Tuolumne, I was somewhat discouraged — no formal birdwalks had been scheduled for the summer interpretive program! I immediately organized a formal Sunday morning birdwalk.

To my surprise, and to that of many others, an exciting total of 67 species (Table I) was observed this summer in the immediate Tuolumne area (from Pothole Dome east to the vicinity around Tuolumne Meadows Lodge). The average number of species seen per 2 hour birdwalk was 17, with a high of 21 species and a low of 12 species.

Of these 67 species, 34 species were determined to have actually nested in the Tuolumne area (actual nest or nesting behavior observed). There were 16 species which were observed throughout the summer but no actual nests were found nor nesting activities noted.

In addition to the common species observed, a number of rare or unusual birds were seen this summer (Gaines 77). These were the following:

Cinnamon TealWestern Meadowlark
OspreyWestern Tanager
Belted KingfisherEvening Grosbeak
Acorn Woodpecker   Lesser Goldfinch
Western KingbirdFox Sparrow
Rock Wren

The explanation of bird distribution has been a matter confounding ornithologists and orniphiles for centuries. This summer was preceded by almost two years of severe drought — only 35% of the average precipitation. It is possible to speculate that the unusual bird species observed this summer may have been vertically pushed up the Sierra by the birds in the lower elevations (i.e. birds needed larger territories ‘to obtain their usual amount of water).

Another alternative or possible additional explanation for the unusual bird distribution may have been the two consecutive mild winters which preceded this past summer. Insect population numbers may have been well above average, offering high protein diets to birds passing through the area. The Tuolumne area was literally smothered by lodgepole needleminer moths during late July and early August. In fact, the Acorn Woodpecker and the Western Kingbird were both seen insect-hawking in areas thick with lodgepole needleminer moths.

One problem, however, is that not enough data has been collected in the Tuolumne area to determine if a significant species change has occurred over the years. However, while researching this paper, I came across a 1936 bird list (Comings and Lunt) of the Tuolumne area submitted to Dr. Carl Sharsmith. Dr. Sharsmith stated that he was fairly confident of the authors’ accuracy in observation. This list allows us to make at least a rough species comparison of this past summer, 1977, with the summer of 1936. Fifty-three species were observed in the Tuolumne area by Ms. Comings and Mr. Lunt. Forty of these species were observed both in the summer of 1936 and the summer of 1977. The following species were seen only in 1936:

Common NighthawkWinter Warbler
Black SwiftPygmy Nuthatch
Western FlycatcherWarbling Vireo
Least FlycatcherTownsends Warbler
Olive-sided Flycatcher   Golden Eagle
Nashville Warbler

Twenty-five species were observed in 1977 that were not recorded in 1936 (refer to Table I).

Whatever the factors affecting bird distribution in the area, the available bird lists show that Tuolumne Meadows offer many exciting and highly rewarding birding moments with rare and unusual species to be seen. In addition, within a one hour radius at least 25 other species can be added to the Tuolumne list (e.g. White Pelican, Cormorants, Terns, Avocets). So, come join me birding in Tuolumne this summer!


Gaines, David. Birds of the Yosemite Sierra. A distributional survey. California Syllabus, Oakland, CA. 153 pp., 1977.

Comings, Jane A. and James C. Lunt. A Tuolumne Meadows Bird List. Yosemite Research Library, 4 pp., 1936.


N - Determined to be nesting in the Tuolumne area
? - Birds observed all summer, Hut no actual nests observed
77 - Birds only observed in the summer of 1977 and not recorded in the summer of 1936
Eared Grebe 77White-breasted Nuthatch ?
Mallard 77Red-breasted Nuthatch N 77
Cinnamon TealBrown Creeper N
Goshawk ?Dipper N 77
Sharp-shinned Hawk ?Rock Wren ? 77
Red-tailed Hawk ?Robin N
Kestrel ?Hermit Thrush N
Prairie Falcon ? 77Mountain Bluebird N
Osprey ? 77Townsend’s Solitaire N 77
Killdeer NGolden-crowned Kinglet ?
Spotted Sandpiper NRuby-crowned Kinglet ?
California GullOrange-crowned Warbler
Mourning Dove 77Yellow-rumped Warbler N
Great-horned Owl ? 77Hermit Warbler
Rufous Hummingbird NMacGillivray’s Warbler
Calliope Hummingbird NWilson’s Warbler N
Belted Kingfisher ? 77Red-wing Blackbird N
Common Flicker NWestern Meadowlark 77
White-headed Woodpecker N 77Brewer’s Blackbird N
Acorn Woodpecker 77Brown-headed Cowbird N
Red-breasted Sapsucker NWestern Tanager
Williamson Sapsucker NWestern Kingbird 77
Hairy Woodpecker NEvening Grosbeak 77
Black-backed Three-toed ? 77Pine Grosbeak N
Hammonds Flycatcher N 77Cassin’s Finch N
Dusty Flycatcher N 77Pine Siskin N
Western Wood-peewee N 77Lesser Goldfinch 77
Violet-green Swallow NRed Crossbill
Tree Swallow N 77Junco N
Rough-winged Swallow ? 77White-crowned Sparrow N
Steller’s Jay NFox Sparrow
Raven ? 77Savannah 77
Clark’s Nutcracker ?Chipping Sparrow N
Mountain Chickadee N

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management