“To the north and northwest [of Tipton] the country is pretty closely farmed, up to the Tule River; but a belt thru Tipton and to the south and east is largely grazing land yet, tho there are pumps being put in and it is only a matter of a few years until every inch of ground is under cultivation.”
-Joseph Grinnell, 1911
The prediction was good, though not perfect. The countryside around the small town of Tipton (about an hour south of Fresno), has mostly filled in with agriculture – alfalfa, wheat, almond trees. But the county of Tulare also boasts of being the dairy capital of the country. Whether that’s true, I have no idea. But there are definitely a lot of cows here.
That first breath of fresh morning air at 5:40am usually does wonders to wake me up for the start of the survey. But gulping in a lung full of cow aroma somehow has a less therapeutic effect.
The survey route certainly wasn’t lacking in birds, at least in terms of abundance. At dawn, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds and Tricolored Blackbirds flew overhead in a nearly constant stream, chattering loudly amongst themselves as they dispersed off into the fields to feed on insects and spare grain.
But in terms of species composition, this route has experienced the greatest change of any yet. There’s been the typical influx of birds associated with human development – starlings, doves, House Sparrows all flocking about the farm yards and cattle pens. A few open country species have held on – kingbirds snag insects over the fields, Horned Larks and Lark Sparrows scavenge for grain on the side of the road, and waterbirds drift lazily overhead, searching for any remnant marshes along the mostly dry Tule River.
When Grinnell roamed this countryside in 1911 he saw Bullock’s Orioles, Burrowing Owls, Long-billed Curlews, nighthawks, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Northern Mockingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Savannah Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Grosbeaks, and Lesser Goldfinches.
All of them depended on a landscape of grass and riparian trees that, by and large, no longer exists. The pasture land that Grinnell walked through was still a close enough approximation to the native grasslands that originally coated the Central Valley. Many bird species cannot live in the new world of dust and cow pens.
The outlook in the valley was rather bleak, and called for more spectacular afternoon explorations than usual. Luckily, Sequoia National Park was just over an hour away.
I had only ever seen pictures of the Giant Sequoias, but pictures cannot possibly capture what it is like to stand beneath a 2,200 year old monolith. They can’t capture that feeling of being impossibly tiny in both space and time. Or the stillness of the forest. Or the overpowering smell of conifer needles and spicy bark. Or the way the flute-like songs of birds echo down from the heights.
If you have never been to see the sequoias: go.