Natural Perspectives: This trip was for the birds

Vic and I returned recently from a birding trip with his class from Irvine Valley College to the eastern Sierras. I've been sick ever since.

This summer, Vic offered optional transportation to his class of senior citizens. Because of the large number of students in the class, I took a driving test at the college so I could be one of the van drivers. But somewhere along our four-day trip, I caught some kind of "terminal tiredness" virus that has just wiped me out. I've been on the couch this week, sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. But I'm not quite dead yet, so let me regale you with tales of our travels.

The first day, we drove to the little mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth is best known as a ski resort and is packed with people in winter. We visit in mid-summer to see mountain birds.

The drive across the Mojave was hot. Really hot. Triple-digit hot. With the air conditioning in the van, we were fine. But when we stopped for meals and rest breaks, it was like stepping into a blast furnace. I have no idea how people lived in such areas before air conditioning.

We had a group dinner the first night at the Stove, a favorite little restaurant of ours in Mammoth. Vic rousted us out of bed at 4 a.m. the next morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He said that there were birds to be seen. I said I didn't care. I'm a night person, more likely to see 4 a.m. from having not gone to bed yet. But getting up at 4? Oh, puh-lease. Vic promised it would be worth it. Some of us were doubtful. I guess you would have to define "worth it."

If we didn't get up that early, we wouldn't arrive at Mono Lake before sunrise. Frankly, that would have been fine with me. But Vic wanted us to have a chance at seeing lesser nighthawks. They go to bed at dawn and sleep all day. That's a lifestyle I can relate to. These long-winged birds catch night-flying insects on the wing, and are a sight to behold as they swoop and dive after their prey.

Our best chance of seeing and hearing nighthawks was to be at the closed visitor center before the sun peeped over the horizon. Like good little birders, we were there. The nighthawks weren't. I guess they didn't get the memo.

But we did arrive before the cliff swallows took off for the day. They had built dozens of clay nests under the eaves of the visitor center. Many of the young were newly fledged. They clung to the side of the building like they had been Velcroed in place, while adult swallows dashed out and back to feed the young still in nests. As the sun rose, the swallows took off in flocks of hundreds. OK, that was a great sight.

Our next stop was Virginia Lakes at an elevation of 9,000 feet up in the Sierras. The heavier-than-normal precipitation last winter resulted in spectacular wildflowers. Brilliant mounds of yellow sulphur flowers contrasted with the silver-gray foliage of sagebrush. Bright blue lupines, lavender mountain pennyroyal, purple Douglas iris and red paintbrush complemented the magnificent color palette. Beautiful as they were, I brushed past them to get a cup of coffee at the Virginia Lakes Lodge.

Vic led us up one canyon after another, and the students racked up quite a list of bird sightings. Raging streams tumbled over huge granite boulders. I was surprised by how full the streams were in July. But as the glaciers in the Sierras continue to melt and grow smaller each summer with global warming, we'll continue to have heavy flows. The electric companies have set turbines into many of the streams to create electricity. I wondered what will happen to electricity generation and our water supply in the future when the glaciers have all melted.

I slept in the next morning while Vic hiked with the class up to Rainbow Falls at Devils Postpile National Monument. I would have liked to have seen the sunrise at Minaret Point, but I needed to catch up on my sleep so I could drive the van home the next day. Vic picked me up at lunchtime, and we all headed off to birding hotspots around Mammoth. I'm not much of a hiker these days, so I either took photographs nearby or stayed in the van and read.

We stayed in contact with each other by walkie-talkie. At one point, several of Vic's elderly students weren't able to complete a loop hike, so I drove the van along some back roads to pick them up.

For our last evening in Mammoth, we had dinner at Rafters. Vic said that he was rewarding me for my services to his class. Opened in 1967, and recently reopened under new management, Rafters was a jewel of a restaurant. Executive Chef Kerry Mechler had prepared a menu that had us drooling. For starters, we had lentil-sausage soup with Parmesan crisps and a Bibb lettuce salad with candied kumquats, macadamia nuts, English cucumber and lemon-champagne vinaigrette. We split an entrée of pan-roasted Alaskan halibut, basil-whipped potatoes and baby bok choy with grilled pineapple tropical fruit salsa, and split a dessert of amaretto croissant bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream. Oh yeah, this is my idea of roughing it.

There are so many interesting and beautiful places to visit along Highway 395 — the historic museum in Independence, Manzanar National Historic Site, Alabama Hills in Lone Pine — that I wish we could have stayed a week. But our time was up. Our long, hot drive back across the Mojave reminded me of why we don't go to the eastern Sierras more often.

We have a local restaurant that is closing soon. It may not be a Rafters, but it is a treasure nonetheless. Alice's Breakfast in the Park will be closing in mid-September. All of the wonderful decorations are for sale, with new things coming into the restaurant as the days wind down. Alice is having a special sale of her Christmas things on Saturday and Sunday, starting at 8 a.m. If you haven't picked up a memento of this Huntington Beach landmark yet, there is still time.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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