Natural Perspectives: Birding in the Eastern Sierra

April 04, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • The storm blowing in over Bishop as seen last Saturday from the Millpond Recreation Area brought little new snow.
The storm blowing in over Bishop as seen last Saturday… (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

Vic and I just returned from a scouting trip to the Eastern Sierra. Vic will soon lead a spring birding trip there for Sea and Sage Audubon, along with co-leader Linda Oberholzer.

We like to visit ahead of time to reacquaint ourselves with the area. While we were there, we noted signs of a rapidly changing planet. Some changes were good. Other changes, not so much. One of the good things was that there was more water in Owens Lake than we have ever seen.

Owens Lake had dried into a saltpan decades ago when water from the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct to provide water to arid Southern California. Recent restoration efforts have increased the flow into Owens Lake, and the results are remarkable.

Much of the lake is now covered with a carefully regulated amount of water that keeps down the toxic dust that used to blow off the dry lakebed. A positive result has been improved air quality, but the increased water level also has attracted large numbers of birds back to the area.


On our scouting trips, we are always looking for new places to bird watch. On this trip, we checked out a few spots that we hadn't visited before.

One of the new areas that we explored was the Owens River Gorge.

Over the millennia, the Owens River has cut a deep gorge through volcanic basalt in some places. North of Bishop and south of Crowley Lake, the river passes through a deep, narrow canyon of basalt. We stopped along Gorge Road at a place called Upper Control to view the canyon and the narrow river down below.

Although it was late March, we saw returning tree swallows and white-throated swifts busily feeding on flying insects in the gorge. The normal migration time for swifts and swallows is mid-April, but climate change has pushed spring earlier all over the globe. The Eastern Sierra are no exception, with spring coming earlier and earlier.

I had used the eBird app on my iPad to locate this birding spot in Owens River Gorge. We also used eBird to report our findings. Every place that Vic and I birded, we counted the number of each species that we saw.

I logged the data into eBird. This goes to a national database at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and becomes part of their scientific research. Using volunteer scientist birders like us, the Cornell scientists can analyze the data and discern trends in bird populations.

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