Sunday, April 26, 2015

Olancha Pass

The Owens Lake Bird Festival Saturday was a big hit.  Everyone enjoyed themselves, at least until the late afternoon field trips which were seriously hampered by a wicked north wind.  Still, for a first-time event, we thought it was well done.  They will make changes for next year and it will be even better.

Since we stayed in Lone Pine Saturday evening, we decided to do some Sierra hiking on the way home this morning.  A trail that's been on our radar was Olancha Pass.  This trail leaves from the Sage Flats road end at an elevation of 5,600 feet and climbs to 9,200 feet at the pass in about 6 miles. The trail was in remarkably good shape considering how little attention it gets, and parts of it are sometimes used to move cattle into and out of the high country.

The trailhead is in a large oak grove that we didn't take the time to bird much, but did hear Oak Titmouse almost immediately after starting out.  A couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also making themselves heard.  Leaving the oak grove, the trail hugs the side of a deep canyon for several miles, quickly gaining elevation on a good trail.  Two Western Bluebirds were easy to see a short distance up the trail.
The trail low down

The birding really got interesting when Susan almost literally kicked up two Common Poorwills that were roosting on the trail edge at about 7,400 feet elevation.  Both flushed out from under her feet and landed a short distance away for excellent viewing.  Needless to say it was quite a surprise.

"Cow Driveway"

At one point the hiking/equestrian trail diverges from the "cow driveway."  That was certainly not a problem for us as the regular trail was quite pleasant and the "driveway" looked pretty torn up as would be expected.

Canyon with Oaks and Pines
In such a steep canyon, it is fascinating to watch the habitat zones change quickly, with much vegetation mixing as we moved along.  The oaks reached nearly 8,000 feet in elevation and were side-by-side with the first fir and pine trees.  Sooty Grouse were regular as soon as we reached the large Jeffery Pines.  We counted 9 "booming" males in the last few miles of trail to the pass. This location must be close to the southern limit this species reaches in Inyo County.  The trail moved briefly into a side canyon where the habitat was perfect for Fox Sparrow and I mentioned to Susan that I was surprised we hadn't heard one singing yet.  I no more than finished my sentence when one blasted out of a manzanita bush next to us and flew across the trail.  He perched up on another manzanita for excellent looks.  Within minutes of our passing he was singing away.

Olancha Pass
Near the top we heard our first Red Crossbills, quickly locating them for good views.  There were traces of snow from storms earlier in the week and minimal water in the stream bed.  Bird activity was good here with numerous Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Brown Creeper. One Red-breasted Sapsucker flew over us and landed on a tree in plain view, while a couple of other sapsuckers drummed on trees nearby.

Summit Meadow
At the pass we looked down a short distance to Summit Meadow.  Hoping to find some Tulare County birds there for Susan's list, we headed down for lunch.  It was cool and windy as we ate and bird activity was minimal.  We did have many expected montane species including a couple more Red Crossbills and an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

After walking along the meadow edge for a while we reversed our course down the mountain.  At 7,500 feet elevation we finally heard then located a species we were hoping for - Wrentit.  The elevation seems high for this species, but the habitat was perfect for them with a mixture of manzanita and oak scrub on a dry hillside.

Summit Meadow "Horse"

 The view back down canyon was spectacular with Haiwee Reservoir, Little Lake, the Argus Range, and Owens Lake all showing at different times along the trail.

Owens Lake

Argus Range, Southern Inyo Mts., and Haiwee Res.

Throughout the hike we recorded 58 species of birds!  We highly recommend this trail to hardy hikers who want to experience the "East Side" dramatic habitat variation and avian diversity that goes with it.

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