Saturday, December 28, 2013

CHRISTMAS MOUNTAIN PLOVERS in SAN BENITO COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

Howdy, Birders,
This is a report covering a typical birding route from Paicines Reservoir and Panoche Road to Panoche Valley, San Benito County, California. 
The highlight was a record count of 269 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS on 
Christmas Eve and 150 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS on Christmas Day. These counts represent the highest counts in more than a decade at Panoche Valley. 
Although I was able to snatch this image, above, of a MOUNTAIN PLOVER, for the most pard they were never close enough for photography.
Other birding highlights included: one or two PRAIRIE FALCONS, MERLIN, FERRUGINOUS HAWK (including one dark morph), RED-NAPED and RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, LEWIS'S WOODPECKER, GREATER ROADRUNNER, PHAINOPEPLA, HORNED LARKS, VESPER SPARROW, LONG-EARED OWL (at McCullough Ranch), and as yet, unidentified, desiccated BAT. 
PAICINES RESERVIOR, above.
"Where is the water?" you ask. At this time, the reservoir is only about one fifth of capacity. According to the USDA, our area is in an "extreme drought." This year, only 5.50 inches of rain have fallen in San Francisco, where records date back the farthest, to 1849. Remarkably, that's almost 3.5 inches less than the previous dry record of 9 inches of rain in 1917. Similar dry records are on tap for our area. The far north end of the reservoir has water that attracts some waterfowl. This is an eBird HOT SPOT. You can view my eBird list for 24 December here
Even though the birds are at the far end of the reservoir and there is dike beyond the sign, above, this is private property. Please do not cross the gate. The reservoir sits on property owned by Paicines Ranch. 
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, above, is often found at the reservoir, as they nest here.
From the reservoir, I headed north on Highway 25, locally known as Airline Highway, for only .4 miles to San Benito County Road J1, otherwise known as PANOCHE ROAD. If you zero out the odometer in your car, you can use the distances that I give in this report. The mile markers are also pretty close to the same numbers. 
This is the ranch at MilePost #9.14 and mailbox 10251 where the LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS were found on 20 December. At least one Lewis's Woodpecker continues at this location. 
LEWIS'S WOODPECKER, above and below,  is an irregular resident of San Benito County. That said, they can be very difficult to find. This "stake out" Lewis's Woodpecker is easy to see from the roadside. 
Perched at the top of a tree or telephone pole, it could be mistaken for a starling if the light is poor, due to the overall dark coloration. In sunlight, the pink colored belly shows well. 
Lewis's Woodpeckers are usually silent in our area, except during breeding season. 
Nesting Lewis's Woodpeckers have been confirmed in San Benito County.
The branches in the left of this image are of a fruit tree which the Lewis's may be feeding on. The posts of the barn, above, are wood. I saw the Lewis's land on one of the support posts inside of this barn!
Lewis's Woodpeckers do not fly in an undulating flight like other woodpeckers. 
Rather, they fly more like crows, or sometimes like a large flycatcher, as this woodpecker was, sallying back and forth across the road. 
Large and long-winged, with a long tail, LEWIS'S WOODPECKER, above. 
My nest stop was the "RED ROCK" which is an eBird HOT SPOT. This spot is 11.4 miles from the intersection of Panoche Road and Highway 25. There is a pullout that can hold several cars. 
The Red Rock is a traditional spot for many of the birds of the blue oak savannah as well as a good variety of sparrows, including Rufous-crowned Sparrow, although I didn't see any either day.
GOLDEN EAGLE, above, is often seen at the Red Rock. Sometimes, White-throated Swifts are present.
Colorful oak tree in this area. The next few miles can be excellent for finding RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW. Be sure to pull out at a safe location. 
Next, I stopped near the ANTELOPE VALLEY CDF STATION, eBIRD HOT SPOT. This has historically been a good stop for Lewis's Woodpeckers in past years. YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES are abundant in the area. I found a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, above and below, feeding here. 
A RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, below, was also feeding here. 
You will now pass through more open oak woodlands where a suite of birds can be found: Western Bluebirds, Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, California Quail, California Thrasher, Turkey, Western Scrub Jay, etc. can be found. 

Panoche Pass Summit and SUMMIT RANCH and POND are about 20 miles from Highway 25 intersection. 
This is an eBIRD HOT SPOT. The pond has not had attracted any birds on my recent visits other than BLACK and SAY'S PHOEBES. 
McCullough Ranch borders Summit Ranch. Some oak trees harbor bright green mistletoe clumps which are worth checking for PHAINOPEPLA
The McCULLOUGH RANCH can best be told by this windmill and corral (on the other side of the road, not pictured). McCullough Ranch is an eBIRD HOT SPOT. The oaks begin to disappear and grasslands become more dominant. A LONG-EARED OWL was at this spot on Christmas Night. Here is one of my checklists.
Now the Panoche Valley floor begins to unfold, above. The remans of an old walnut orchard can be seen in the distance. After passing the orchard, you will be in the PANOCHE VALLEY proper. 
The PANOCHE INN is located about 27.7 miles from Highway 25. They will make you a good sandwich for about $7. Please do not ask to use the bathroom, unless you are purchasing food. 
Panoche Inn will also serve you a cold beer on those hot summer nights, should you find yourself in the valley. However, Panoche Inn does not have any overnight accommodations. I recently ran into a couple from France who thought they'd spend the night at the "inn."
MERCH HOT SPRINGS, located along Little Panoche Road, does have overnight camping and small cabins for rent. 
Continuing on Panoche Road, I headed to PANOCHE SCHOOL, an eBIRD HOT SPOT, where about 120 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS were found in an adjacent field on 20 December 2013. 
Norton Road borders one side of Panoche School. It is a marked, dirt road.
Looking down Norton Road, below. The gray stuff is a pile of gravel. The road is dirt and passable as long as the conditions are dry. 
I counted MOUNTAIN PLOVERS from Norton Road, but I found that a better counting location was to continue along PANOCHE ROAD to: N36.61065 and W-120.85877. This is not an eBird Hot Spot, but I have it logged in eBird as a "personal location." Here is one of my checklists for this spot. And, another checklist, here. MOUNTAIN PLOVER is a California Species of Special Concern, and federally proposed Threatened Species. 
The dark dots in the above image are cow patties. However, there are MOUNTAIN PLOVERS in this image, above! Can you see them? Yep, they are very hard to see. You will need a spotting scope. 
This is the actual color of the field and a single MOUNTAIN PLOVER, above, that managed to get close enough for a photograph, although this image is cropped. Mountain Plovers nest on the Western Great Plains. The are winter visitors in our area. 
MOUNTAIN PLOVER, above, in an image that has had adjustments made so that the bird stands out better. 
When the Mountain Plover turns its back, it blends in with the surrounding land completely, making them even more difficult to find and count. A few, 6-30 KILLDEER, were also mixed in with the plovers. 
PRAIRIE FALCONS seemed to have "discovered" the Mountain Plover hang outs. I don't think that there are more than 2 Prairie Falcons on the valley floor, and maybe only one. 
Unused fencing. 
Sign at the intersection of Panoche and New Idria Roads, about 31.2 miles from Highway 25. 
I continued on Panoche Road toward Silver Creek.
"Stop" at this conveniently marked telephone pole for the best viewing location of MOUNTAIN PLOVERS along this part of Panoche Road. MOUNTAIN PLOVERS counted at this location can be added to the SILVER CREEK eBIRD HOT SPOT. Here is one of my checklists. And, another, here
MOUNTAIN PLOVER field at this location. I found 6-30 Mountain Plovers here. 
Some of the MOUNTAIN PLOVERS were in the fenced area in the left portion of this image. There was also a large flock of HORNED LARKS here. 
If you reach this Silver Creek Ranch sign, go back to find plovers. 
Another PRAIRIE FALCON, above. These falcons are resident in San Benito County, breeding at Pinnacles National Park and in the Diablo Mountains. 
FERRUGINOUS HAWK, above and below, is a winter resident in San Benito County. 
This raptor nests in the Great Plains, often on the ground. Formerly, it build a nest using buffalo bones and lined the nest with buffalo dung. I call it the "BUFFALO HAWK." It is my favorite Buteo
Beyond the corrals at Silver Creek Ranch, the paved road turns to hard gravel. This road is passable as long as it does not rain. When rains occur, even a 4WD vehicle can get stuck. Beware!
PANOCHE CREEK, below, is an eBIRD HOT SPOT. Birds found here should definitely be logged on to this Hot Spot, as this represents a unique habitat amidst the surrounding grasslands. The only VESPER SPARROW I saw was along the roadside, here. My checklist is here
Despite "extreme" drought conditions, Panoche Creek continues to flow. The road has solid pavers at the creek and driving through the creek is not a problem these days. 
Another view of PANOCHE CREEK, above, with extensive wetlands. 
This is an excellent location for GREATER ROADRUNNER, as they breed nearby. 
I found this ROADRUNNER on Christmas Day, sitting on the fence, basking in the sun, at Panoche Creek. 
Crossing the creek, one can continue on Panoche Road all the way to Jackass Pass. There is a drainage along the left side of the road what contains a few old cottonwoods. 
MERLIN in a cottonwood tree at Panoche Creek.
The hills were bone dry, with nary a bird in sight save 2 RED-TAILED HAWKS and 2 LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES. NO Mountain Bluebirds or Horned Larks, or anything else alive. 
Panoche Road, above, winding down to Panoche Valley. 
Just about the only vegetation on this portion of the road was ephedra, below. Even then, only a few small clumps, mostly on the roadside where they had not been grazed by cattle. 
Returning to Panoche Valley, I noticed a small bunch of dried stuff stuck in the barbed wire. 
Even as I photographed it, above, I thought is was just some dead vegetation. 
However, on closer inspection, I found that it was a tiny bat that had obviously flown into the barbed wire. This is not the first time I've found a bat killed by barbed wire. 
Bat's face, above. 
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT
A sign in Panoche Valley
YA THINK SO?
I DO!

Questions, or need more details?
Email me: debi@shearwaterjourneys.com

HAPPY TRAILS, 
DEBI SHEARWATER
SAN BENITO COUNTY BIRDING

7 comments:

Antshrike said...

Great post. I'm wondering if your bat on a wire could be the larder of a shrike.

Debra Shearwater said...

Yep, I certainly considered that the bat could have been shrike larder. In fact, that's why I stopped in the first place. I once found a Savannah Sparrow with its head stuffed in the barbed wire — definitely a shrike job. But, in this case, I think not. Although I should think that it would be rare, I have found bats stuck in barbed wire before. In those cases, it most definitely looked as though the bat had flown into the wire, as the wings were caught in a manner suggesting this. Using sonar, it is hard to imagine that they could do this, but I have seen it. Thank you so much for your comment.

Chris Hiatt said...

Very nice pics Debbie. On a side note I had above Idria, on Dec. 26
5 w.thr. swifts and 2 Bell's sparrow

Debra Shearwater said...

HI, Chris,
Were you on New Idria Road when you saw the Bell's Sparrows? They are not often seen on that road. Any location help would be greatly appreciated for the CBC on January 4. Did you check for mountain plovers?
Debi

Dave Kutilek said...

Wonderful blog post, Debi!

On Dec 30th, I took this same trip and spent the day in Panoche Valley yet mostly in the canyons on Idria Rd looking for Chukar... which (AGAIN) never showed. Did see about 30+ California Quail there.
Lots of Mountain Plovers were seen in the usual fields. Great trip as usual... except no Chukar.

I think I will need to go to Butterbredt Springs in Kern County in April to get this nemesis species!

all the best,
Dave

http://www.birdingpix.com/
http://www.birdingpix.me/

Anonymous said...

A great and informative post!
I was also out here in Dec and saw the Plovers. Also observed an American Badger, San Joaquin Kit Fox, Prairie Falcon, and 2 Giant Kangaroo Rats in October too - a fantastic trip!
I was wondering if you could recommend any good areas around Panoche for trying to observe Merlin, Long-billed Curlew, and Long-tailed Weasel, three species that are in the area which consistently elude me.

Thanks!

Debra Shearwater said...

HI, Anonymous,

Not many sightings of long-billed curlew in Panoche Valley this winter. Most winters, they are on the valley floor, often near the Panoche Inn. There is no particular place to look for merlin. We did see a "black" merlin behind the Panoche Inn on 1 February while we were eating lunch at the picnic tables. I've never seen long-tailed weasel in the valley. I don't think the grass is long enough, right now. Last one I saw was just outside of the Hollister City limits. Good luck. Glad the post was helpful. Debi