Thursday, October 27, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

Howdy, Birders,
Shortening days, crispy mornings and the arrival of 174 MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS in Panoche Valley indicates to me that we are on the downside cusp of fall with winter approaching. It was a fabulously beautiful day in the valley. Panoche Valley is a designated Important Bird Area (IBA) by National Audubon Society of Global significance. It is a spectacular grasslands, visited by over 500 birders during the winter months. Because I live locally and am a keen birder of San Benito County, I visit this area much more frequently.
In addition to the MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, I found many of the icon species of this area, including: 2 PRAIRIE FALCONS, one on Panoche Road, just entering the valley, and one on the valley floor; 1 MERLIN at Shotgun Pass; 1 NORTHERN HARRIER at Shotgun Pass; 6 VESPER SPARROWS, most on Panoche Road near Silver Creek Ranch area; 15 SAGE SPRROWS, most in Panoche Hills area, but one surprise at Jackass Pass; 3 ROADRUNNERS, one in Panoche Hills, one in Tumey Hills, one near Silver Creek Ranch; 16 CHUKARS, 11 at Shotgun Pass and 5 in Panoche Hills; 2 BURROWING OWLS at Shotgun Pass; and one CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR female on the valley floor. From Highway 25 south of Hollister, turn east on Panoche Road. This road winds around blue oak and grassland savannah with some steep hills where the road narrows to one lane. Stopping well off the road in these areas will usually yield Rufous-crowned Sparrows. I did not stop, but continued out to the valley. A brief pause at the pond along the roadside at Panoche Pass Summit was made. A male PHAINOPEPLA flew over.
Above, is a shack along the road where large flocks of sparrows are usually encountered, including White-crowned and Golden-crowned and Lark Sparrows.
That's him, above, the first of fall/winter MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD that I saw! I was quite surprised. He was on Little Panoche Road, as I was heading for Shotgun Pass. The valley floor is well stocked with good sized flocks of SAVANNAH SPARROWS and HORNED LARKS. I found a CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR in these grasslands which was not only a San Benito County Big Year tick for me, but a county tick, as well!
A female MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD which I found just on the other side of Shotgun Pass. On the west side of the pass, I noticed a very quick ROADRUNNER ducking out of sight behind a large ephedra shrub. A NORTHERN HARRIER, rare on the Christmas Bird Count for this area, was hunting along the pass hillsides.
Along the rocks, inside of the pass, this ROCK WREN, above, was quite active. I like to bird public areas during the weekdays to avoid traffic and crowds. If you decide to stop in the pass, be sure to pay attention for oncoming vehicles!
Soon, I heard a lot of "chucking" noise, and noticed a group of CHUKARS scrambling along the steep, rocky hillsides of the pass. This is one of the best places to find Chukars.
Two BURROWING OWLS were on the east side of Shotgun Pass near the corral where there is a good pullout. Just a little way down the road, you'll notice the FRESNO COUNTY line sign. Being a poor county, there is no sign for San Benito County. Birders beware— when entering eBird data, you have just entered a new county.
The view, above, leaving Shotgun Pass. Most birders continue from Shotgun Pass to Mercy Hot Springs and/or to Panoche Hills BLM area. I did not go to Mercy Hot Springs, but I did spend an hour or more at Panoche Hills BLM area. NOTE: It is Chukar hunting season. Weekends are going to be packed with hunters and target practicing folks. I only encountered two very nice fellows who came out on the weekday to avoid the noisy gunfire, just like me. I showed them where I was going on the BLM map. Somehow, they avoided the area where I was completely. I never heard them. It is important to keep in mind that this BLM area is closed for part of the year. This is a good time to visit the area. Keep an eye out for Sage Thrasher.
This area has been "improved" by our government. There is now a pit toilet at the entrance to the BLM area and a portion of the lead road, P1, into the area is now very firm with a gravel top. However, as soon as it rains, most of the roads into the area will be impassible except by 4WD, and maybe not ever with it! Take great care here, or get up there before it rains. The first portion of the road leading up to BLM is private property. Almost all of this area is in FRESNO COUNTY, not SAN BENITO COUNTY. It is possible to get to San Benito County, though. I found SAGE SPARROWS to be very showy on this day! Sometimes, they can be difficult to find. However, many individuals were out on the dirt road. If you see a sparrow on the road, and it runs with its' tail flipping and cocked, it is probably a Sage Sparrow! It reminds me of a mini-roadrunner. One flock of six was along the road! Notice, in the above image, how well it blends in with the local backdrop!
The SAGE SPARROW of Panoche Hills is the interior race, Amphispiza nevadensis canescens. This species is just about at its' northern limit, here.
This image, above, shows the pale, streaked, buffy flanks. This individual was feeding right along the road cut. To feed, it repeatedly jumped up on the shrubs, presumably to get seeds, as in the image below.
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES were present along most of the valley roads. I was recently reminded by a friend that I've seen Loggerhead Shrikes in some stage of nesting from mid-February though mid-October! That is quite a season of shrikes!
This VESPER SPARROW, below, was on Panoche Road near the Silver Creek Ranch area. It was one of four VESPER SPARROWS in this area. If one follows Panoche Road, it turns to dirt just a bit beyond the intersection with New Idria Road. It is this stretch of Panoche Road where Mountain Plovers have been found in recent years. I looked and found none — yet. However, this stretch of road was some of the best birding in the valley. I followed it all the way to Jackass Pass where the FRESNO and SAN BENITO COUNTY lines meet. Flocks of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS were along this road.
This ROCK WREN, below was maddeningly defending its' small pile of rocks along the side of the road from another Rock Wren. Although sparrow flocks were good along the road, they have never been as numerous since the county began ridding the edges of the roads of vegetation that the sparrows depend upon. This is a pity.
Flocks of more than twenty MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS were along this section. Look for mixed flocks of bluebirds with HOUSE FINCHES. The two species are flocking up together.
Crossing Panoche Creek, one travels up to Jackass Pass. This creek runs all year and can be a magnet for migrants. Indeed, a NORTHERN FLICKER flew overhead. This stretch of road is a good place to look for Sage Thrasher and Lark Bunting. Earlier in the fall, I found a winter male Lark Bunting here, but have been unsuccessful in relocating it.
Topping Jackass Pass, I made a brief tour near the Tumey Hills BLM area, FRESNO COUNTY. The distinct silhouette of a ROADRUNNER is outlined, above.
Finally, I headed back to the intersection with New Idria Road, passing the Griswold Hills BLM area. This is a great place to see Rock and Canyon Wrens. I found more MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS and a few YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES along the road. Many AMERICAN KESTRELS and one PRAIRIE FALCON were hunting in the area. Near this sign there is also a new pit toilet and a picnic table where I had my dinner.
Panoche Valley is under threat, not only from the FERAL WILD PIGS, above, but also from development of a solar industry which would cover most of the valley floor, forever changing the character and nature of this unique and special portion of California. You can help by learning more about this through SAVE PANOCHE VALLEY and the SANTA CLARA AUDUBON SOCIETY. If you are one of the more than 500 birders I counted visiting this awesome valley during the winter of 2011, I urge you to educate yourself on these issues. We need your help!

Other mammals for the day included: Coyote, Skunk, Raccoon, Giant Kangaroo Rat. on the drive home, I saw 2 Burrowing Owls, 7 Barn Owls and 2 Great-horned Owls.

All images by Debi Shearwater, copyright. Please do not use without permission.

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater
AKA "Annie Auklet" as played by Angelica Huston in the movie, "The Big Year" playing at a theater near you NOW!

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