A Bird's-eye View of the Great Outdoors

A Bird's-eye View of the Great Outdoors

Participants in a Yosemite Conservancy bird-watching Outdoor Adventure search for birds using binoculars.

Did you know that June is Great Outdoors Month in the U.S.?

On May 29, continuing an annual tradition, President Obama issued a proclamation encouraging people “to experience the natural grandeur of our Nation” this June, with a reminder that we all have a role in preserving public lands for “future explorers, adventurers, and environmental stewards.”

Here at the Conservancy, we’re all about celebrating and stewarding the natural world. So on the first weekend in June, in honor of Great Outdoors Month, Conservancy staff member Katie grabbed a pair of binoculars and set off to learn about some of Yosemite's more than 160 resident and migratory bird species.

Vibrant western tanagers spend their summers in Yosemite's forests, but head south for the winter. Photo: Ann & Rob Simpson.

Katie had signed up for the Conservancy's bird-watching Outdoor Adventure with naturalist Michael Elsohn Ross, who kicked off the three-day workshop with an avian safari in the Valley. With Michael's guidance, Katie and her fellow participants spotted brightly colored western tanagers and heard song sparrows crooning their tell-tale tune to the rhythm of "Old maids pick up your kettle-ettle-ettle." 


Black-headed grosbeaks get their name from the French "grosbec," or "fat beak." Photo courtesy of NPS.

They saw stocky black-headed grosbeaks, and spied the white-spectacled face of a Cassin's vireo, a small brownish-gray songbird, peeking out of a cup-shaped nest woven from a variety of materials - including bits of toilet paper.


Later, the group met with Yosemite wildlife biologist Sarah Stock to learn about the park's songbird monitoring program, a long-running Conservancy-supported effort to study and protect birds and their habitats. With Sarah’s guidance, they got an even closer look at some of the park’s feathered residents, including a dusky flycatcher, during a hands-on demonstration of bird-banding, a technique that helps scientists track individual birds.

An Outdoor Adventure participant holds a dusky flycatcher during the bird-banding demonstration.

As the group learned, Yosemite’s birds offer a glimpse into the diversity and ever-evolving nature of our great outdoors. The park’s bird species range widely, from the once-endangered peregrine falcons that nest on cliff walls, to a genetically distinct population of rare great gray owls, to the ubiquitous blue-bodied Steller’s jays. And the birds’ habits and habitats are changing. Song sparrows, once rare at higher elevations, are now known to breed above 8,000 feet. Many of the park’s young peregrines fledged a month early this year, potentially due to warmer temperatures.

Naturalist Michael Elsohn Ross shares his knowledge of Yosemite's birds.

Here's what else they learned: Bird-watching isn't just about birds. Katie and her fellow adventurers forged relationships not only with one another, but also with their surroundings. Their leader, Michael, said that by the end of the workshop he and his students were “experiencing the park with a greater sensitivity to its sights, sounds and creatures.”

You don’t have to spend a weekend in the woods to deepen your connection with the natural world. Go for a day hike, join a beach clean-up or observe the wildlife in your own backyard. Or, if you’ll be near Yosemite, check out one of upcoming Outdoor Adventures – in the next few weeks, we’re offering backpacking treks, birding trips in Tuolumne and more. 

Wherever you are, and whatever time you have this summer, we hope you’ll get outside and get to know your great outdoors.



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