by Jon Fisher
Charlton Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains is a birding spot that is often overlooked. In summer, many birders head for the higher country – Buckhorn, the Wrightwood area, Mt. Baden-Powell, or to the San Bernardinos. In spring and fall the desert oases and coastal vagrant traps beckon. Winter can be slow, bird-wise, and it's also rather cold.
Yet Charlton Flat offers very good birding at nearly any time of the year. In summer, there are many breeding and resident species. Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Wood-Peewees, Ash-throated and Olive-sided Flycatchers, Orange-crowned and Black throated Gray Warblers, Western Blue-birds, Purple Finches and Black-chinned Sparrows, and Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches all breed here. Though this area is too low for breeding Calliope Hummingbirds, they may be seen in migration. Saw-whet Owls have been recorded here occasionally, but can be difficult to locate (try for them early in the year: February-March).
Year-round residents include White-headed, Nuttalll's and Acorn Woodpeck-ers, Band-tailed Pigeons, Steller's Jays and Western Scrub Jays, Purple Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, and loads of Moun-tain Chickadees.
Late summer (August) brings migrants. Sage Sparrows (probably breeding locally), Selasphorous Humming-birds (both Rufous and Allen's, though identification to species is next to impos-sible), Red-breasted Nuthatches, Wilson's, Hermit and Townsend's Warblers, Pacific-slope and Willow Flycatchers and others. In fall and winter you can also find Red-breasted and often Williamson's Sapsuckers in the picnic area.
Unusual birds recorded here in years past have included Red-faced Warbler (!), American Redstart, Northern Parula and Osprey.
Charlton Flat lies nearly in the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 25 miles from the 210 Freeway along the Angeles Crest Highway. My favorite birding route is reached by taking the first possible right turn after entering Charlton and parking in one of the parking areas on your left. Get here early, even on a summer weekend, and you'll have the place to yourself. Since water is relatively scarce in this area, bugs are rarely a problem. Continue on foot down the paved road past the locked gate (it only keep cars out, not people), and then onto the unpaved fire road until you can go no further. Along the way, you'll go from open pine-oak forest to alder riparian, to pine-sagebrush, to willow riparian…the variety of birds is rewarding. The route back is more uphill (but not difficult) walking. Mule Deer and Black Bear are possible along the way, and Western Gray Squirrels are plentiful.
The area around the picnic grounds can also be good, especially in August and September for migrants and in fall and winter for woodpeckers. There are plenty of roads and trails in this area, so explore! The mixture of oak and pine often harbor an amazing number of migrants in season. The short hike to Vetter Mountain offers fewer birds, but a nice view.
Remember, you are required to display a "Forest Adventure Pass" on your car when parking at Charlton and at most other locations in the San Gabriels. These passes are available at Sport Chalet and Forest Service Stations ($5/day or $30 for a yearly pass).