The Panoche Valley - In search of the Long-eared Owl.

In which we take a day trip to a spot in the Panoche Valley where (we have been assured) we will be able to photograph the "uncommon or rare" long-eared owl.

We set out first to reach Highway 5 via Gilroy and the Pacheco Pass, then a few miles south of that junction we turn back towards the coastal ranges and follow the course of a dry river bed to our destination.

After achieving our mission, instead of going back the way we came, we continue on towards Hollister and thence to Gilroy again, completing a clockwise loop through parts of California not seen by the average tourist.


3202 The Pacheco Pass goes through some geographically stunning countryside - here an upthrust "Tor" topped by cell-tower antennas. One can just see the cut of what was once a dirt road hugging the contour of the hill. This might be recently graded, but more likely it was a wagon road carved by early settlers.


3207 We pass by another spectacular "Tor". The fact that it has not eroded to a rounded knoll over the millennia means it is close to a solid piece of rock.

The only vegation that survives on the upper part are trees whose roots have maged to find a toehold in the cracks.


3212 The rest of the landscape consists of gently rounded hills, indicating eons of erosion after the initial upthrust created by the clash between two tectonic plates.


3214 It is a long climb to the summit of the pass. As we get higher, there are less and less trees covering the hillsides. This is not a direct result of altitude but more indirectly as a function of the "rain shadow" that results as the incoming low clouds arriving from the ocean are forced higher and thus drop their rain before they get here. The very high clouds pass right on to the Sierra further inland.


3215 Just beyond the summit of the pass is the San Luis reservoir. Besides storing water run-off during rainy season for use during the summer, part of the reservoir is also used as an energy storage reservoir. Water is pumped up from the valley when the electrical load is low, and released through hydro-electric turbines to generate electricity when needed at peak times.


3219 In the far distance we can see the dam wall that holds the water back to form the reservoir. On the nearby shores we can see the different "bathtub rings" showing where the water-level has been in the past.


3222 We get onto the big Highway 5 and head south for just over 20 miles when we turn right onto a two-lane road and pass through an orchard which will be the last sign of "cultivation" we will see for a long time. The white boxes under the trees are beehives which have been trucked in to ensure pollination - the bees are so thick in the air we have to drive slowly to avoid splattering too many on the windshield.


3228 The flat bottom of the valley where the yellow shrubs are just busting out.


3233 There is just enough grass on the hillsides to support a few cattle - just a few head per hundreds of acres.


3239 Cattle Barn in the valley


3252 Success !!! Eventualy we reach the "resort" where the owls are alleged to be. Luckily we encounter a fellow photographer who shows us where to look - without his persistent help in guiding us, we would never have seen them camouflaged in the trees.


3253 The helpfull photographer went to great lengths to point them out to us - he said there were three in that particular tree. I could only see one... until I looked at this image at home on the full-size screen of a computer. That when I saw the second one silhouetted behind the first. I never saw the third.


3261 The old main house of the "resort" is in a sorry state of repair.


3263 They appear to be removing and recycling the plumbing fixtures - or putting in new ones prior to restoration?


3265 Mission accomplished and we continue our large loop back towards home. The further west we go (towards Hollister) the more cattle we see - but the number of hooves per acre is still very sparse.


3269 We transition over a ridge into another valley.


3272 The roadside fences would indicate that we are now moving into denser cattle country.


3272b The presence of a water tank alongside a stream bed provides an indication of a managed ranch rather than just open range.


3273 The stream bed is already dry in February, but its banks sustain the growth of a few trees.


3276 As we move west back out of the rain shadow, we see more trees beging to dot the landscape.. A scar on a distant hillside shows where a man-made road once existed - maybe the old stage-coach road that passed through these parts?


3280 Here and there the rolling hills are broken with a rude reminder that we are in an area where two plates of the earth's crust clashed together (and are still clashing - Hollister a few miles away is a notorious earthquake center)


3290 Soon it becomes apparent that we are re-approaching civilization - a ranch house is the first sign of human presence we have seen for many miles.


3292 More evidence of a geologocally active history


3294 The flat-bottomed valley is lined with evidence of geologic upthrust


3295 And now we begin to see evidence of cultivation - we are coming back into civilization. Within another hour or so we will be back in the thick of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.