Posted by: atowhee | March 29, 2008

South into spring. Lawrence’s elusive lovelies.

I-5 Drive, March 28, 2008

Shortly after I left Ashland, heading south on I-5 toward San Francisco, I stopped at the Collier Rest Stop, the first one inside California.  Sandwiched between freeway and the Klamath River, there’s a quarter-mile riverfront you can walk along.  klamathj.jpgOn this day, as often before, I found Lewis’s Woodpeckers busy in the oaks on the steep ravine face across from the park.  Ring-billed Gulls were alert for any hand-outs or throwaways.  Clearly they’d gone through the open-top garbage cans.rbgulls2j.jpg Most of the birds were Starlings, Crows, Robins or Tree Swallows flying up and down the river.  But there was a pair of California Quail who slipped quietly into the berry brambles along the east bank of ther Klamath.  And singing House Finches.  Later this spot will have Bullock’s Orioles and Yellow Warblers.

South of Yreka and I got onto the access road along the freeway and visited one of my favorite farm ponds in the whole world.  It’s next to Easy Street, where we’d all like to be.  This day it supplied four aces and a passle of ducks.  Four Icterids: Yellow-headed, Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbirds and signing Western Meadowlarks.  It surprised me to see male Yellow-heads sitting atop their cattails, glowing warmly in the wan light of a cloudy morning.  Just one week into official spring.    Despite the fact it can’t cover more than ten  there were ten species of waterfowl on the pond, none unusual.  Coots, Killdeer, Scrub-jay, Lewis’s Woodpecker in the oaks across the water.  And Turkey Vultures, fifteen on the ground next to the pond there was something compelling professional interest to nature’s recycling squad.

Just north of Weed I heard a puzzling sound in the rental Jeep’s engine, so I had to pull off onto the grass next to the paved shoulder.  Road emergency stops only.  I just happened to find myself next to the largest of the roadside ponds on this stretch, ponds where I always see birds, dark shapes as I whiz past at 65 MPH.  yrekapondj.jpgThis time I took a look while standing still: Shoveler, Wigeon, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, Tree Swallow.  The Jeep seemed to be OK, perhaps it was just my curiosity rumbling?  So onward and southward.

On this trip weather ranged from snow around Mount Shasta, to broken clouds with sunshine in the Sacramento Valley to windblown rain in the Bay Area.  Mount Shasta’s the tallest mountain in northern California.  Its conical peak was unseen as I passed as is often the case.  Dense clouds and blowing snow swirled at road level, about 4000 feet.  Looking upward toward where the peak sits in its extended winter: just soft grayness.  And, invisible but not unimaginable, hundreds of inches of snow.  Shasta has her year-round glaciers.  Passing on a warm summer day you can feel the mountain is biding its time until winter.  Mt. Shasta, though it’s a volcano, is also reminder, a permanent colony of winter.  Before its most recent volcanic activity, the Mount Shasta complex was covered in heavy glaciers that began retreating more than 6,000 years ago.  Yet one can imagine the cone in bygone millenia, totally sugared over in white.  The mountain of endless winter.  

It’s believed Shasta’s last eruption was in 1786.  It’s still active after all these years.  And the snow has returned to cover the upper reaches that go about 14,000 feet at the top.  Even in these warmer times, there is always some snow in the cirques on Shasta’s north face. It’s been less than a century since the most recent eruptin of its neighboring volcano, Mt. Lassen.  Lassen’s often visible east of I-5 but today the clouds persist, and the kindred volcanoes exist in their own place as well as my memory.  Out of sight, not out of mind.

From about 3,000 feet in elevation, south of Shasta and down most of the length of the Sacramento Valley, mtn-redbudj.jpg mtnredbudcloseupj.jpg mountain redbuds were in bloom.  South of Redding the trees are planted at interchanges and along the roadside.  Further north they are a natural part of the forest. Also about that point in the trip, just south of Dunsmuir, the oaks were in leaf. They held the soft green fresh leaves of early spring, not the leathery, tough dark green leaves that will stand up to the searing heat and low humidity of the coming rainless summer. Below 2,000 feet I began to see mustard and wild radish in bloom.  By the time I hit the valley floor above Redding I saw blue and white lupine blooming along the road, then later the purple vetch, a weed of rampant success in flat grasslands.

When I got to Corning, I took Exit 630 and went west six miles to the Sacramento River at Woodson Bridge.  On the river sits disshevelled little Tehama County River Park.  Its buildings badly vandalized, its parking lot looking like it’s been shelled, a mobile home park right on its edge, plastic garbage cans stacked under a tree, waiting for warmer days, the boat ramp into the river rutted and unpaved.  But the cottonwoods and oaks are glorious, and the birds on migration unconcerned with aesthetics.  Here I find all three goldfinches and House Finch, all in ad hoc song competition.  Six little shapes settle down onto the parking lot about twenty feet from the Jeep before I even open the door.  I approach and they ignore me.  I’m so gobsmacked at seeing three of them are Lawrence’s Goldfinches!  I even forget to try to take a picture though my camera is over my shoulder.

Up into the tree they swirl, the noise of four finch species all singing and fussing and fluttering about.  None of the Lawrence’s come back down to my level. The terrain hereabouts is disturbed riparian, big trees with weeds underneath.  In nearby Woodson Bridge park the ground is a jungle of intertwined vetch.  There I see one of the most wonderful arching valley oaks I’ve ever seen.  Ishi’s grandparents might well have camped beneath its sturdy limbs.
 In my limited experience with Lawrence’s Goldfinch they’re found on serpentine soils, among oaks, where chemise plants grow and bloom. I assume these birds are on their way to some breeding grounds on a dry slope further east or north. However, Mike Feighner tells me he once found them nesting right here along the river ar Woodson Bridge.  Here’s what Cornell Lab says about the species: “Its highly erratic movements from year to year make assessment of its population trends very difficult.”  You look at the Lawrence’s range map: they’re limited to part of California and Arizona, and a bit of Mexico.  Like the Triclored Blackbirds I saw earlier, they’re a California specialty. The latter I’ll neventually get onto my Oregon life list, not expecting Lawrence’s however.

The male bird is dominated by Crayon gray, a pure, deep and untinted grayness.  The wing bars on both genders are a bright yellow.  That is your clue to their goldfinchness.  Along with their song imitating scads of lesser birds.  And Lawrence’s uncommon little lovelies are an apt commemorative of the man whose name they bear.
George Newbold Lawrence was a 19th century American businessman and amateur ornithologist. His expertise made him a respected colleague of John Cassin, Spencer Baird and Dr. Thomas Brewer.  Here’s a contemporary article by C. Hart Merriam on Lawrence.  You have to pay $10 to see it.  It was John Cassin who honored Lawrence with this namesake bird.  Lawrence himself was an expert on the birds of tropical America, publishing over 120 ornithology articles during his lifetime.

Between Woodson Bridge and the Interstate were some of the oldest olive trees I’ve seen on this side of the Atlantic.  They have a few centuries to go before they rival trees on Naxos or Lesvos, but for nouveau groves in California, they’re impressive.


Passing down the Sacramento Valley I saw only three Yellow-billed Magpies.  One was at the bWillows Rest Stop.  This spot has towering eucalyptus trees and a ground cover of various weeds.  It borders heavily used farm land, a crop duster was passing over while I was there.  Yet on one of the tree trunks a pair of Brown Creeper were working.  There were Tree Swallows and Turkey Vultures aloft. Of course, the trees were full of House Sparrows, House Finches and Brewer’s Blackbirds.

I by-passed Sacramento Wildlife Refuge for lack of time, but did make a couple quick stops in the marshland between Novato and Vallejo: Godwits, Willet, Avocet, Stilts and more of the usual ducks.  I picked a couple of Dunlin out of the crowd of bigger shorebirds.  The Avocets and Stilts will be breeding in the Bay Area.  Most of the others will migrate out. The raptor count: one kite, one Harrier, two Red-tails.

I’d seen Brewer’s Blackbirds at the coffee shop parking lot in Ashland, my first parking lot in San Francisco: more Brewer’s Blackbirds.  So Dr. Brewer got a very different namesake than his colleague Lawrence.


  1. An amazing description my friend. Do you know Tom Stienstra? He’s the Outdoor Writer for the S.F. Chron and lives on a large acreage and home a few miles west of Weed. He’s a long time poker playing, fishing and hunting buddy and once I was his step-father-in-law for a short period of time. If you haven’t met…you should, for you have a lot in common and would enjoy each other’s company.

    Warm regards,


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