Sunday, May 15, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

In pursuit of spring neotropical migrants and following on John Luther and Jim Lomax's recent report of a good fallout elsewhere, I set out early on Saturday, May 14, 2011 for Fremont Peak State Park, usually a great spring birding road. The morning began disappointmentingly cold, 41 F, with fog rolling in on a breeze, just like the San Benito County Big Day morning! Ugh. Practically no one was camping in the campgrounds. It had rained the night prior. It was incredibly quite for birds, and just about everything else. So, I began heading downhill, stopping whenever I heard birds, pishing and whistling various owl calls. Suddenly, I realized that a Northern Pygmy Owl was returning my call! It sounded so perfect. Now, I have had a lot of good luck with owls (keep reading), even calling out pygmy owls in the daytime. However, I just had to consider that it could — just possibly, be — another birder. And, there he was — emerging on the hilltop above me, behind the trees! I called out, "Lomax, Lomax."

Jim and I hooked up to bird our way down San Juan Canyon Road. We did come across a number of migrants— quite a few HERMIT WARBLERS, TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS and WARBLING VIREOS, plus lots of the "regulars", in particular a lot of NORTHERN HOUSE WRENS singing. However, our best bird on this road was a single PACIFIC WREN. This wren is not so easy to find in San Benito County. It does not breed in the county, and only a handful are seen each year, if that. Some recent reports have come from Pinnacles National Monument. So, it was no surprise that this was a new county bird for Jim and a year bird for me. This was great news. In our search for Cassin's Vireo, which does nest on this road, we failed. Still, a county bird put us in good spirits. Jim set off on his other county pursuits, while I headed to Gloria Road, where I had not birded "in forever."

Gloria Road is a hard-packed dirt road, south of Paicines on Highway 25. Reaching the road is a lovely drive in itself through oak forests dotted with gray pines. The predominant habitat is chaparral, with chemise covering the hillsides. A permanent, willow fringed creek flows alongside the road.
Nuttall's Woodpecker and Acorn Woodpeckers are common on this road. Above is one of the many granaries of the later.
Several species of oaks are dripping with the Spanish moss like vegetation. Mistletoe is also found in many of the trees. Best place to look for Phainopepla is the first 50 yards of the road, after the turnoff on Highway 25, also known as "Airline Highway."
All birding is from the road, as there is no public land. Please do not trespass. This is a public road, however. It is one of the few roads that crosses the Gabilan Mountians. The summit is the county line for San Benito and Monterey Counties. It is possible to follow the road all the way down to the town of Soledad, in the Salinas River Valley. I meandered, very slowly along this road. Some flowers were in bloom. Scarlett Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), above and below.
These flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds. On one May day in 1992, I found six species of hummingbirds on the San Benito County side of this road: Anna's, Rufous, Allen's, Black-chinned, Calliope (male), Costa's. In some years, Costa's Hummingbirds nest here. Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla), I think, below:
BELL'S SAGE SPARROWS, along with WRENTITS and CALIFORNIA THRASHERS also breed on the sloping chemise hillsides. All of these resident species were easy to hear and see on this day. Pretty Faces (Triteleia lugens), below:
Like so many places, HOUSE WRENS and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, were singing non-stop. Every time I heard a WARBLING VIREO singing, I stopped to look for migrants. It was interesting that they would all be clumped in one tree— so, all six WESTERN TANAGERS were on one, small oak tree. Likewise, all four BULLOCK'S ORIOLES were in one oak. Overall, it was pretty quiet for bird sounds. Maybe too cold. I don't know. Not even the WESTERN WOOD PEEWEES were calling. In past years, I've seen LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES building nests in May. However, they were simply feeding in the fiddleneck flowers. I did find two pairs of nesting LARK SPARROWS and newly fledged OAK TITMICE.

As the late afternoon merged into early evening, I slowly meandered toward Hollister, taking a few twists and turns on lonely side roads. I was thinking that the Pacific Wren was certainly the "bird of the day." When, suddenly, POW— an orange puffball of feathers swooped past my car in a moth-like flight! It only lasted 3 seconds at most, but my brain registered, LONG-EARED OWL! As it was still very early, with lots of light in the sky, sunset still on the cloudy horizon, I stopped the car, and got out. POW— suddenly the owl swooped past me, and then another owl did the same. One Long-eared Owl perched in a gray pine. I could hear soft, muffled sounds of fledglings in a nearby nest. Obviously, all the swooping was due to my presence near the nest. This is the first known nest outside of Pinnacles National Monument, in San Benito County.
The two adults began calling back and forth to each other. It was entrancing to hear their sounds in such close proximity. Not wanting to disturb them, I moved on. Did I say I was Lucky with Owls? One more chapter for my owl storybook!
Long-eared Owls are common throughout San Benito County, nesting from as far north as Fremont Peak to the very south of the county line, near Coalinga Road, and all throughout the middle parts, including at Pinnacles National Monument. But, to actually SEE Long-eared Owls while it was still daylight in San Benito County, was a real treat.

Many birders visit Mercy Hot Springs, Fresno County, in Panoche Valley to see and photograph Long-eared Owls. A few pairs also breed there. The fee for owl visiting and photography is $5 per person. It is also possible to spend the night, camping or in their small cabins.

A couple more owls— Great-horned and Barn, popped up on the way home, as a soft rain began falling. What a fine ending to a cloudy, cold spring day, enlivened by the cheery House Wren songs, everywhere. In fact, I think I had to shake those wrens out of my shoes at day's end.

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater

San Benito County Birding

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