Thursday, June 19, 2014

California Farthest Country: Modoc National Wildlife Refuge

South Warner Mountains, a view from Dorris Reservoir

Date: April 23, 2014
Place: Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.461836, -120.508371
Length:About 1 mile
Difficulty: easy

Spring break gave us a long enough vacation time to explore a bit of  Modoc County. Specifically - the Alturas and the South Warner Wilderness area, at the northeastern end of California. After a great bloom time by Oroville be headed north,stopping once for a lovely hike at Burney Falls (of which I'll post later this summer), ending that day in Alturas. At that point we learned that a weather system that wasn't predicted at the time we left home was also making its way to Alturas. But we still had a couple of nice days ahead of the weather and we made the best of them. I think.
The first place we wanted to see was the Modoc National Wildlife Area, just south of Alturas. We missed a turn and went south on 395 a few miles and while we stopped to figure out where we were we spotted a pronghorn roaming the fields west of the road.
So we drove back to Alturas, found the road leading east towards the Warner Mountains and once again missed the turn to the main NWR area ... and so we found ourselves by Dorris Reservoir, which we did plan to check out afterwords.
A primrose field at Dorris Reservoir
The water level was really low. The Modoc to has suffered the state-wide drought. The area yielded by the water was overtaken with a gorgeous field of tansy evening primrose flowers.
Tansy Leaf Evening Primrose (Taraxia tanacetifolia)
We didn't hike by the Dorris Reservoir, just wandered along the shore a bit and drove the little dirt road there.
A few other ephemerals splashed some lively color on the otherwise drab lakeside.
 Tufted Phlox (Phlox caespitosa)
Papa Quail did the driving. I made him stop for this one :-)
Common Starlily (Leucocrinum montanum)
But then, he had a good reasons to stop also.
Western Kingbird
There were a few birds floating lazily on the water but they were few and far. The birds in the scrub were considerably more cooperative.
Tree Swallow
Eventually we found our way to the main area of Modoc NWR.  We did the car tour and stopped for a little hike (trailhead coordinates at the top of the post) by the ponds.
The water was low and most of the vegetation still brown and drab. Sandhill cranes were everywhere, in small groups or couples.

Sandhill Cranes
They really are amazing birds. With a life span that matches human and their courting and marriage practices, they really are very much like us. Not to mention their very cool dancing moves :-)
Sandhill Crane
The Modoc is about the southmost point where these cranes stay year-round and even breed. A ranger we met along the trail had pointed us to where a crane's nest was, built on dry tule in the pond.
A nesting Sandhill Crane
The larger pond was populated with ducks and grebes. We hiked slowly along the shore, pointing out the different species, enjoying the temporary sunshine and looking warily at the approaching clouds.
Modoc NWR, a view west
Suddenly, Papa Quail exclaimed with excitement: he spotted a horned grebe. A common bird in the Bay Area, but it was the first time we got to see it in full breeding colors. Fancy!
Horned Grebe, breeding adult
Shortly after, we were treated again: this time with an eared grebe, wearing matrimonial. Isn't spring great?
Eared Grebe, breeding adult
By the time we finished our hike we had made up our minds to go up to Warner Mountains wilderness and do a little hike there, and, if weather was still agreeable, to camp there overnight. After lunch and after consulting a birding brochure we picked up at the BLM office in Alturas, augmented by a nice discussion with the diner's owners, we decided to go instead hike and camp by Cedar Pass, a choice that was well worth it.


  1. My comment disappeared...

    I wrote it was a nice trip and the pronghorn is a real treat - so were the grebes in their wedding gowns

    1. Disappeared where? (wasn't in the spam box). I'm glad you wrote again :-) The pronghorn was a real treat - they are shy creatures and not many of them are left in California.

  2. lovely! beautiful pronghorn, lovely flowers, the cranes and grebes are also great!

    1. Yes, it reminded me very much of Colusa with the richness of interesting waterfowl. Ever since I discovered that place I am always on the lookout for the NWRs.