Naturalist notes

This winter, poconip fog reigned in the Mono Basin. From the first snow in early November to the lengthening days of March, if we weren’t catching monster snowflakes on our tongues from snowstorm after snowstorm, we were enveloped in a frosty low cloud day in and day out. This year’s poconip fog was so persistent, so icy and thick, that it created delicate rime ice branching off of yesterday’s hardened rime ice that was sprouting from last week’s icicles that dangled precipitously from the roof—a nesting doll of winter’s mesmerizing phenomena. In the coldest pockets of the night when the frozen fog was so thick and the frost so heavy, the crystals would drop from all the fractaling branches of every tree and shrub, creating the illusion of fresh snowfall—sometimes almost an inch of crystals would pile up on my porch overnight. In between bouts of moving snow after storms, I would rest my arm on my shovel and watch the twinkling frost flakes flutter down around me—a meditation.

Though the poconip is beautiful and unique, it holds the cold in the basin like a child holds a beloved teddy—tightly. This tenacious cold drives many birds out toward habitats under much warmer blue skies just miles away. The few birds that remain are bold at feeders, sparring with competitors for the seeds that help them survive this trying season. As spring crept closer, the longer and slightly warmer days lifted the poconip earlier and earlier in the day—sometimes we saw the sun by noon—and birds returned to their usual haunts and started twittering rumors of spring. Thankfully, the rumors were true: Spring has sprung!

While we were cozy in our homes, the wildlife was out and about in the basin. Here are some memorable observations from the season:

Boldly colored and patterned Spotted Towhees revealed themselves in yards and at feeders; they mostly skulk quietly in the depths of thickets throughout the summer, so seeing them contrasted against the white snow was a treat.

Several Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays spent the winter in town, calling loudly while they associated with the Steller’s Jays—this was unusual because Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays are typically shy and secretive in their pinyon-juniper habitat.

Split genetically from the coastal Scrub Jay species a few years ago, hybrids are possible in this area of the Eastern Sierra and each individual requires extra investigation; many go unconfirmed.

A tiny but ferocious Northern Pygmy Owl spent a few weeks hunting songbirds in Lee Vining apple trees.

Multiple regal Mountain Lions were spotted prowling near Navy Beach before the heavy snow; another was slinking through the snowy sagebrush on the rounded ridgeline of a glacial moraine, silhouetted against the Sierra crest.

A Gray Fox was seen prowling in the icy night, its bottlebrush tail almost doubling its body length.

After a birdless morning in Lundy Canyon, a young Golden Eagle soared above the poconip and landed on a big granite boulder to preen.

A Black-tailed Jackrabbit bounded through deep snow near the lakeshore, almost disappearing under the powder with each leap.

A California Quail balanced on Jeffrey pine branches outside my office window, its scallop-printed flank feathers contrasted with the puzzle-piece pattern of tree bark, its topknot feather quivered as it waited for the danger to pass.

A Raven played on its airfoil wings, barrel rolling in the sunshine as the fog lifted south of Lee Vining. A barrel roll is when the bird flips upside down and glides for a second on its back before flipping back over and continuing along its merry way.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2023 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo by Nora Livingston.