Memories of Crowley Lake

Greater Sage Grouse - Centrocercus urophasianusCrowley Lake is located within the Eastern Sierra District in the high country north of Bishop California. It is a large lake on the upper Owens River and part of the Los Angeles DWP district for supplying water to southern California. The lake rests at the lowest edge of the 11 mile by 20 mile wide Long Valley Caldera. Just 760,000 years ago, it was the site of a supervolcano that spewed ash over most of present day western USA.

Habitat here is dominated by Great Basin sage, and many of the birds here might be found in central Nevada. I’ve met woodpeckers, gulls, larks, sparrows, thrashers, shorebirds, grouse, towhees, blackbirds, warblers, tanagers and swallows in the fields by this lake.

Tree Swallow - Tachycineta bicolorMy first visit to this region in was in May 2005, while on my way to Alaska. The strongest memory I carry from that visit, was finding breeding Willets and single egg laid on open ground. On sighting the Willets posing on high perches in a field of large sage structures, I walked out with my camera to meet them. After capturing a few satisfactory images of this pair, I retreated to my vehicle, leaving the birds behind me still posing. My path was rife with footfalls, and it made sense to keep my eyes on the ground. When I was only yards from my ride, I spotted a large green mottled egg on the path. There was no nest or scrape nearby, but then I understood what the parents were performing about.

I returned March 2009 to experience lekking Greater Sage Grouse. I stayed for three days and I froze my tootsies while meeting these birds as they performed their strange puffed up dances. I found the lek site on the previous afternoon, and returned in the pre-dawn hours to watch the full moon fall behind the icy pinnacles of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. I peered from the portals in the tent-blind I brought with me, and when the first hint of light shed on the large field before me, I could make out the silhouettes of several birds. But I was not close enough to capture good images. I didn’t want to disturb the birds, so staying inside the blind, I picked up my gear (chair, tripod, camera and 12 pound lense) and inched forward. Stopping after a shift of a few feet, I checked to see if the birds were disturbed. After several sequences I reached a position I felt would be sufficient for collecting photographs, and where the birds seemed to accept my presence. I had no thermometer that morning, but I believe the temperature was about 10°F. I’ve experienced -32°F when I was younger and dumber in 1969 working outdoors in Montana, but this morning seemed every bit as cold. Perhaps because I had to sit still for so long, it increased the “feel” of it. I stayed until the last bird flew off and the daylight was advancing.

In May 2011, I visited the lake again and became acquainted with the locally breeding sparrows, thrashers, phalaropes, and swallows. This visit had two high points for me. One memory was meeting my first breeding Wilson’s Phalaropes at the warm springs near North Landing. The second memory I carry from this visit was finding hundreds of swallows loafing along the shore on the sage covered slopes and old remnant fence lines. There were five swallow species all huddled together and included my first encounters with Bank Swallows.

My last visit was August 2014, when I visited the Owens River Gorge below the Crowley dam. My goal was to explore the canyon, but I still was able to meet a few birds. The gallery below shows some of the birds I’ve met while visiting Crowley Lake.

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