Sunday, May 17, 2015

Haiwee Pass Adventure

We knew before we got there that the Haiwee Pass trail had been damaged by flash flooding in recent years and that hiking it could present a challenge.  But it was on the list of places we'd never been and would give us the opportunity to move the line further south for Sooty Grouse in Inyo County if we could find one.  A few weeks ago we hiked the Olancha Pass trail and found numerous grouse, establishing the southernmost Inyo record.  The drive in from Highway 395 was uneventful - the graded dirt road is in decent shape and passable to any vehicle.  Bell's Sparrows flitted across the road as we drove in and one Le Conte's thrasher jumped up in front of the car for a good view.

The start.  Haiwee Pass is the shallow
indentation on the right side of the far ridgeline
There is an obvious parking area with a short section of road continuing to the beginning of the flood damage where we saw for ourselves the power of nature and water.  Where there once was a trail, now there is a narrow canyon with considerable erosion.  The most recent flash flooding came in the summer of 2013, but the willows are bouncing back quickly with many standing several feet tall.  This lowest section of the canyon had great birding - between the route finding and the stops for birds we didn't make much progress.  Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers were numerous, as were 5 species of Empid flycatchers - Pacific-slope, Gray, Willow, Hammond's, and Dusky.  Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeak and Green-tailed Towhee added to the migrant mix.  Several Canyon Wrens called from the cliffs above spaced out every half mile or so.  At 5,600 feet elevation we heard the distinctive call of an American Dipper.  There wasn't a lot of water running in Haiwee Creek, but apparently enough for the dipper.  The steep rocky habitat of the canyon sides was perfect for Black-chinned Sparrow, and sure enough we soon heard the unmistakeable ping-pong ball song.  Before we reached Soda Springs we would tally 4 of them.

There were still a few late season lower elevation flowers on the canyon edges.

Springs on the approach to the pass
It took us most of three hours to pick our way up the canyon to Soda Springs at three miles in where the trail left the canyon for the steep ascent to the pass. Pinyon pine and oak were the dominant trees at this elevation and would continue until just before the pass at 8,100 feet.  Black-throated Gray Warblers sang constantly through the pinyon zone. It wasn't long after starting the switchbacks above Soda Springs before I heard it - the boom of a male Sooty Grouse in the Jeffrey Pines above. It was shortly after this that we had one of those "east side Sierra moments" - where the steep escarpment and overlapping habitats can create a fascinating mix of bird sightings.  From slightly above us came the song of a Mountain Chickadee and from just below the song of a Black-throated Sparrow.  Throw in the two Townsend Warbler migrants, a calling Oak Titmouse, two White-throated Swifts wheeling overhead, all without taking a step and you have a fascinating eclectic mix of bird species!

Jeffrey pines and firs near the pass

We continued on to the pass finally reaching Jeffrey pines and even a few firs just below.  This elevation added the expected montane species including Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Steller's Jay and Clark's Nutcracker.  It was along this section that we recorded both pacific and interior races of White-breasted Nuthatch based on distinctive differences in call notes.  Not sure what's going on there - was one a migrant and the other a resident bird?  There is much to learn about these subspecies.

At the pass we had lunch and admired the view down to the south fork of the Kern River and back to the Owen's Valley 4,000 feet below.
View west from Haiwee Pass to the south fork Kern River
View east to Owens Valley, Inyo, Argus and Panamint Mountains
The cool partly cloudy weather made for pleasant hiking.  58 bird species were recorded from the bottom of the canyon to the pass.  Driving out we passed by what must have been at least two family groups together of Le Conte's Thrashers.  At one time we had 8 thrashers in view!

Bird lists:


  1. WOW! What a great day you had! Absolutely gorgeous scenery up there. I am so thankful you are sharing this way. I am really enjoying "going along on the hike."
    Glad the Thrashers are doing well.
    At banding Sat. we encountered quite a few migrants. We separated the Dusky and Hammonds by wing feather measurements (according to Pyle).
    The flowers are so pretty and the power of floods is so dramatic.
    What glorious photos to look at.
    I'm also impressed with the bird groupings.
    Thanks for your excellent narrative, too.

  2. 58 species!! Your new joint PCT trail names should be "Bird Magnets." Rosie