Natural Perspectives: Birding in the Eastern Sierra

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.

One trend for sure is earlier springs each year. My report of white-throated swifts was so far off the scale in time of arrival that it made the California rare bird alert. This is a free service that anyone can subscribe to through the eBird website.

My iPad has become an indispensable part of our trip planning. I can check the hour-by-hour weather forecast while we are on the road, and monitor storms on Doppler radar.

This is very useful when storms are moving in. In fact, a spring storm brought snow to the Mammoth area while we were in the vicinity, with 100 mph winds on the mountain ridges.

As the storm approached, I watched the wind blow over the ridge in dismay. The high winds lifted up the snow that was already on the ground, and blew it into the air where it evaporated.

After the weekend storm, the Sierra snowpack is still only about 55% of what it should be at this time of year. Any additional loss of snow is a big blow to our water supply.

One thing that changing climate is doing is melting the spring snow earlier each year. This reduces the amount of water that can be stored in the form of snow, and thus reduces the amount that is available to us in southern California as drinking water.

Changing climate also changes storm patterns, causing increased flooding in some areas and increased drought in others. Right now, we are in a period of drought. According to an article in USA Today on Monday, Southern California has only 39% of its normal water supply. We really live in a near-desert with a limited water supply, and we all need to conserve water in every way that we can.

On eBird, I noted that no one had reported birds from Diaz Lake in Lone Pine for more than a month. Our report of the birds that we saw there was an important addition to the national database, helping to fill a gap. We noted that the tip of warbler migration had begun with yellow-rumped warblers present in full breeding plumage.

We observed quite a few Eurasian collared doves on our trip, a species that we are not used to seeing in the Eastern Sierras. This is a newly arrived species that is spreading rapidly throughout the South and Southwestern United States. While not migratory, these doves are highly dispersive.

Introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, Eurasian collared doves spread to Florida by 1982. They are now found throughout the western and central U.S.

We're not sure exactly when they arrived in California, but they are becoming an increasingly common sight. One reason for their success is that they have three to four broods a year, and like mourning doves and rock pigeons, they live near human habitations.

Eurasian collared doves resemble mourning doves, except that they have a black crescent on the back of the neck. Larger and heavier bodied than mourning doves, they have squared off tails versus the pointed tails of mourning doves. They are becoming an increasingly common sight in Orange County.

This trip emphasized to us the rapidly changing planet that we now occupy. Whether or not you believe in the theory of global warming, it is occurring. Humans have caused many changes in the natural world, from introducing species from one place to another, to diverting natural watercourses, to loading that atmosphere with carbon dioxide that is producing a greenhouse effect.

We certainly live in interesting times.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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