Monday, December 26, 2011


Howdy, Birders,
Wandering around San Benito County after a late start on a beautiful Christmas Day and late into the evening, I had some great birding. The singular highlight was eight "Christmas" MOUNTAIN PLOVERS at Panoche Valley! A YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER (rare in San Benito County) and a stunningly sublime sunset, below, capped the day, while GIANT KANGAROO RATS and a variety of owls filled the night. All images, copyright, Debi Shearwater. Please ask permission to use.
Grabbed some hot chai at Starbucks and headed to Paicines Reservoir. Highlights at this stop included: adult male and female BALD EAGLES sitting in the oak grove; 5 WHITE PELICANS which headed off to the north; a SPOTTED SANDPIPER; 11 HOODED MERGANSERS; 65 COMMON MERGANSERS and a soaring GOLDEN EAGLE. But, the best thing for me was meeting a photographer named John from Daly City. I was having troubles with my camera. It's not the camera, but rather the operator! Many thanks to John for helping me out. I gave him some ideas for where to photograph the raptors on Santa Ana Valley Road. But, for no real reason, I headed out to Panoche Valley, on J1, Panoche Valley Road. Of course, right away, I saw 3 more GOLDEN EAGLES! I stopped, briefly along the oak woodlands of this road where I found a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK and this NUTALL'S WOODPECKER, below.
A HY male YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER was a nice surprise. I had seen this individual a couple weeks ago, but had much better views this time around. Still, the bird was in constant motion, flying from tree to tree.
Quite a few sparrows along the road, mostly flocks of WHITE-CROWNS and LARK SPARROWS, along with DARK-EYED JUNCOS, below.
WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH is one of the typical species of this habitat, below.
At the pond at Summit Ranch, five HOODED MERGANSERS were sitting on one of the duck houses! BTW, the "white-fronted geese" at this location are not wild geese, but barnyard geese. Eight AMERICAN COOTS were on the pond. Panoche Valley Christmas Bird Count may get a record high count of coots this year.
Just beyond the pond, at mile marker 20.85, I saw the male PHAINOPEPLA, which I had previously reported. If you are looking for this bird, just pull well off the road, and wait. He is likely to be there all winter, guarding a large mistletoe stash.
When the road flattens out, you'll begin to enter the valley floor. Here, I found a GREATER ROADRUNNER, a PRAIRIE FALCON and another PHAINOPEPLA, above. This bird was about a quarter mile off the road. So, it is a very long distance shot. The silhouette is distinctive, though.
Very large flocks of SAVANNAH SPARROWS, below, line the fences of the valley floor. I headed for Shotgun Pass, turning left on Little Panoche Road.
Another PRAIRIE FALCON flew over the pass, while a BURROWING OWL was standing tall. I didn't stop to photograph it because I was heading for Panoche Hills.
Huge sparrow flocks flew up along the roads in the BLM lands. I saw a few SAGE SPARROWS, and the ROCK WREN, below.
Many of the southeast facing hills have large stands of Spanish Dagger, a plant that Costa's Hummingbirds favor. Amazingly, I found no Mountain Bluebirds in the BLM lands.
Returning to Little Panoche Road and heading back to the intersection of Panoche Road, I noticed a BARN OWL stuffed inside of a hole in the hillside— just a portion of the face looking out at me. Passed up two more BURROWING OWLS. Now, I decided to focus on finding more Burrowing Owls, checking old known spots.
On Panoche Road, most birders are familiar with the School. It is the only school in the valley. I took a left at the school on a dirt road. This is Norton Road, but the street sign no longer exists. It is an eBird Birding Hotspot. As the reader can see in the above image, there is a cow-paddy laden, dirt area, bordered by grasses. It was here that I had hoped to find a Burrowing Owl. Instead I saw these sweet little brown, Christmas plovers! There is a MOUNTAIN PLOVER in the image above, but it is more easily seen in the image below. The corral area where the plovers were is located exactly .5 miles from the intersection at the school.
MOUNTAIN PLOVERS are one of the most prized birds of Panoche Valley. Although I've made many trips to the valley this year, this is the first group that I've encountered. I counted them at least half a dozen times, one by one. Only eight plovers! If you report bird sighting on eBird, and I hope you do, please count plovers, one by one, rather than estimating. It is not that difficult. Also, if you have a scope, check for leg bands. I did not find any.
One of the unique things about this location is that the area that the plovers are using is very, very small. This often means that the plovers very close to the road. For photographers this presents an extremely rare opportunity! It was nearly dark when I was there, from 4:45 to 5 pm. The sun was behind me. So, afternoon light will be best, but don't wait this late in the day.
I implore birders and photographers to please, please be respectful of these birds and private property. Please do not slam your car door and keep voices down. We'd like to keep these little gems around for all to enjoy! Below, you will see a more general image of the area.
Looking toward the end of Norton Road, below, you'll see this rather frightening homestead. Signs all around state that "Trespassers Will BE SHOT." Take heed. Do NOT under any circumstances cross any fences or gates.
This corral, below, is directly across from the area where the Mountain Plovers were foraging. A flock of about 225 HORNED LARKS joined the plovers, but flew off at sunset.
I did not see any Burrowing Owls at the corral, but did see a dark morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK near the school when I left the area. Continuing on Panoche Road, I bee-lined to Silver Creek, hoping to find plovers there, too. No luck. I did see on BURROWING OWL in this area, though.
The sunset was quite spectacular this evening. I shot many images, but the one below, over Kim's house is one of my favorites. I saw three GIANT KANGAROO RATS before leaving the Silver Creek area. It was solidly dark on my fairly uneventful drive back to Hollister. However, I did manage one GREAT-HORNED OWL at Paicines Reservoir; 2 BARN OWLS on Quien Sabe Road (lower area); one BARN OWL and one GREAT-HORNED OWL on John Smith Road.
Just loved those "Christmas Plovers!"
Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding

1 comment:

Marilyn Kircus said...

I just found your blog through the CalBird list and enjoyed you mountain plover story. Thought about birding there but it is a little far for me. I'm a volunteer at Sacramento NWR. I have a blog entry about the falcated duck. Clicking on the current header will get you to a study of mostly him plus a few other birds at Colusa. He is getting to be a ham and is usually active and close to the viewing platform from dawn to mid morning and from 2:30 or so until sundown.