Fall Birds of the Yuba Pass area
My husband and I and a mycology class from SFSU spent the past weekend camping up near Yuba Pass. The mushrooms were fabulous (thanks for asking), but we were also curious to see what the birdlife would be like this late in the season. Both birds and humans suffered through a cold rain and hail on Friday night, but only the birds had the benefit of down jackets come a bright and crisp Saturday morning.
Foraging in a sunlit pine at the Chapman Creek campground was a mixed flock of resident species: red-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees, creepers, flicky ruby crowned kinglets and the ubiquitous juncos. Stellar’s jays (with a dialect distinct from our Bay Area populations) roamed the camp, and a white-headed woodpecker posed prettily for my husband at a nearby tree. The “balls of fluff” song sparrows foraging in a nearby seep looked as cold as I felt.
On Sunday morning, on our way back to the Bay, we couldn’t resist making a quick pass through the Sierra Valley, a prime location for many spectacular spring sightings. Fall was a different matter. For one thing, it was the start of hunting season, and the sere fields were full of not breeding birds but folks wearing blaze orange vests, and carrying guns. I made it a point to reverse my poly vest from the black to the red side! Plenty of locals coursed the fields, bird dogs at the ready. A bit farther along the road, David and I observed equally bright breasted pheasants standing nervously by, and who could blame them? The worst part of our journey was seeing the vast hordes of cattle running rampant across the wet meadows. The waterways that supported so many bird species in the spring were churned and muddy from all of the bovine activity. Talk about E.coli on the hoof.
There were a token number of waterbirds scattered here and there: a great blue heron, a great egret, and flocks of mallards in eclipse plumage, in a pond near the first farmhouse. The cattails and rushes below the steel bridge harbored a few “kiddicking” Virginia rails, and an immature, red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone pole. It was pretty discouraging. We almost turned around right there, but decided not to go back through the gauntlet of cars belonging to the pheasant hunters, and as it turned out, it was a good thing that we didn’t.
Looping back towards Sattley, we spotted a trio of sandhill cranes: foraging Mom, ever-vigilant Dad and brown-headed Junior, still fattening up for the fall migration. Just before we reached Hwy. 49, we were treated to the sight of several ferruginous hawks. From a distance, with their white heads and chests contrasting with their very dark backs, they almost looked like ospreys. One bird was sitting in a field very close to the road, and we got great looks at him as he decided whether or not to fly off. His face was dramatically hollowed about the eyes, and marked with gray. When he finally did flush, we watched him wheel above us, with his beautiful white tail fanned out. What a treat. Guess that there are still a few reasons to bird the Valley, even if you don’t like the taste of pheasant.