SBT County: Park & Wire Birding
- Hi, Birders,
Today I went birding for most of the day in my home county, San Benito.
I visited Vista Hill Park in downtown Hollister and Panoche Valley,
well known to many birders. The highlights were many, but the best
birds were a BREWER'S SPARROW and SAGE THRASHER on Panoche Road. Many
Although rain was in the forecast, and indeed rain showers sprinkled
the day, I had my heart set on going out to Panoche Valley today. I was
not at all disappointed. The valley was a spectacle of billowy white
clouds and rolling gold hills with purple-green mountains in the
background. It was a feast for the eyes and soul of those who love wide
open vistas. At every turn, some new and dramatic land would unfold
before my eyes�from the juniper dotted Griswold Hills, to White-crowned
Sparrows popping up in sunflower colored clumps along the roadside.
Many birders are familiar with Panoche Valley and make a winter trek
there in search of its special birds. But, I urge you to consider an
First, though, I headed to Vista Hill Park in downtown Hollister. After
birding there yesterday, I decided that with the cloudy weather
migrants might make a show. They sure did! Only 2 of the 22
RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS from yesterday were there. But, the bottlebrush
trees were dripping with warblers, not to mention the 50-70
hummingbirds! I tallied at least 30 warblers, and there could have been
more. In some sort of ornamental conifer near the entrance to the park,
I found a TOWNSEND'S X HERMIT WARBLER. (A first for me, and for the
county, I think). In the pines near the restroom (which was locked
during the time I was there), I found a male TOWNSEND'S WARBLER. The
remainder of the tally was: 4 YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS, 12 ORANGE-CROWNED
WARBLERS, 10 YELLOW WARBLERS, 2 WILSON'S WARBLERS. I was at the park
from 8-9am. I also saw 4 GREAT EGRETS fly over. BEWICK'S WREN and
NUTTALL'S WOODPECKER, and 5 roosting TURKEY VULTURES were about.
I made my usual loop through Santa Ana Valley to Quien Sabe Road, and
south on Highway 25 to J1, or Panoche Road. Recorded the regulars:
LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE, SAVANNAH SPARROW, KESTREL,
RED-TAILED HAWK, RAVEN, WESTERN MEADOWLARK. Two GOLDEN EAGLES were on
the ground, hunting squirrels, one was on a fencepost, and another was
on top of an oak tree. Stopped in at the Bolado Historical Park, but
not much was happening there. Added COMMON YELLOWTHROAT.
From Highway 25, J1, or Panoche Valley Road winds around the hills to
the valley floor. Often, birding is very good along this route. But, my
goal was to get to the valley proper. I only made a couple of stops.
So, I'll just include the highlights. Two COOPER'S HAWKS were near MM
19. By the day's end, I decided that these birds were really on the
move. At MM 14, I encountered a flock of 90 LARK SPARROWS. This was
great news! Sparrow flocks have formed. Now, I was "wire birding,"
looking at any bird that was sitting on wire fences or telephone wires.
Added another GOLDEN EAGLE on a telephone pole near MM 19.49, bringing
my total to five so far. At the Summit Ranch pond, a GREATER
YELLOWLEGS was present. Between MM 21.24 and 21.34, I found at least
six RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS. (Okay, this was "rock birding, " as they
all sat up on rocks. They were calling).
Upon entering the McCullough ranch area (note the round, white signs),
I found a PRAIRIE FALCON on a telephone pole. At MM 23.00, I found a
mixed flock of SAVANNAH SPARROWS (10), HOUSE FINCHES (10), LARK
SPARROWS (40). These mixed flocks hold the best potential for a weird
bird. Another mixed flock was at MM 24.00, and held a VESPER SPARROW.
Beyond the old McCullough walnut orchard (which has been bulldozed
because the trees were diseased), was the largest flock yet. Near MM 25
is red fencing on both sides of the road. It is here that I found a
single BREWER'S SPARROW and a single CHIPPING SPARROW, and another
VESPER SPARROW, with about 15 Savannahs, and more that 50 Lark
Sparrows. I worked this flock for quite awhile. Tried to get some
pictures of the Brewer's and Chipping, but not a lot of success. One
HORNED LARK popped up on the fence down the road.
Next, I drove the unsigned dirt road, which is Recalde Road. This is
the only road that is cultivated with row crops in the valley. Two
CASSIN'S KINGBIRDS were on the telephone wires near the dip. A few
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS were on this road. If you take this road, it
will bring you out to Panoche Road again.
From Panoche Road to the Silver Creek area was some good birding. I
found another CASSIN'S KINGBIRD near the renovated ranch. A ROCK WREN
popped up on the fence. Many, many more Savannah Sparrows. Do I look at
a lot of Sivvy Sparrows? You bet. Looking through flocks and flocks of
sparrows is very tedious, but it is really not unlike looking through
flocks of storm-petrels! Passing the corrals at Silver Creek Ranch, the
road turns to dirt. At the dip is a stream with great habitat. SONG
SPARROW and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER were here.
I decided to follow Panoche Road to Jackass Pass. (If you follow this
road to its end, you will reach I-5). The dip is always good for birds,
and sparrow flocks. So, I was still watching the fences, as I went up
the hill. Just past the cottonwoods on your left, about 25 yards, a
larger bird jumped up on the fence. SAGE THRASHER! It was 1:45 pm. I
watched it, and tried for pictures, but no luck. Most of the Sage
Thrashers found on the Panoche CBC are found in the BLM lands of
Panoche Hills which are in Fresno County, not San Benito County. This
thrasher was in San Benito County. I always thought I'd find a Sage
Thrasher on this road. At the top, Jackass Pass, you will cross the
county line to Fresno, again. I drove to the top, enjoyed magnificent
scenery, turned around and headed back. On the drive back, I found
another PRAIRIE FALCON. At 2:30 pm, I encountered the same sparrow
flock near the cottonwoods, and refound the Sage Thrasher. This time I
got good photos of it. It was standing on a perfectly round rock on the
same side of the road as the cottonwoods. A flock of 500 blackbirds
were along the fences on the way back. Most were TRI-COLORED
BLACKBIRDS. I drove back to the intersection with New Idria Road.
Heading out the New Idria Road, more mixed sparrow flocks were near the
white mailbox #250 with two blue swimming pools for livestock. Another
flock of 85 Lark Sparrows was at MM 2.73. These large flocks are where
I found a Black-throated Sparrow a few years ago. I stopped to
photograph a number of TARANTULAS. Another Cooper's Hawk circled
overhead, making it hard for me to find any little birds. Found my FOF
GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS mixed in with the White-crowns. Not very many,
yet. Their numbers will increase later. Turned around at MM 6.0.
On Norton Road, starting at the school, another mixed sparrow flock was
along the fences. I refound the SAGE SPARROW of a few days ago, just
past the dirt piles on your right. Usually, this sparrow does not sit
on the wires. Look for a bird that runs on the ground, and scoots under
the low scrubby vegetation. It did sit on the fence, briefly. It runs
with its tail cocked, most of the time. Kind of a mini-roadrunner. One
more sparrow for the day! Well, Norton Road dumps you on to Little
Panoche Road. So, I just had to go out there to see if my Chukar
friends were having tea.
Drove Shotgun Pass, slowly, and�nothing! No Chukars for me. Stayed on
the road, until I turned around at Mercy Hot Springs. Another Cooper's
Hawk zipped through the hot springs. Snapped pics of another GOLDEN
EAGLE, sitting on a fencepost at the county line. One more time through
Shotgun Pass, and nothing! I couldn't believe it. Where were they? At
the end of the pass, I saw a CALIFORNIA QUAIL! Couldn't believe it.
This is not quail country. Never seen them in the pass. So, I stopped
to look at them, and whoaaa�10 CHUKARS went scurrying up the hillside!
This was at MM 4.12, where there's a bunch of orange signs saying
I shot a bunch of scenery images. The lighting was just awesome.
Started for home at 5 pm. Got a little sidetracked by spending an hour
talking to both of the McCullough brothers, aged 79 and 72. That's
It was a great day. I can't encourage folks enough to head out to the
Panoche Valley. Temperatures were very nice. There's plenty of bird
activity. Dirt roads are very drivable, unless we get a whole lot more
rain. All of this was roadside birding. When wire birding, it is best
to stay in your vehicle and don't pish. Just watch for birds popping
up. They sure were today!
Debra Love Shearwater
PO Box 190
Hollister, CA 95024 USA
"Real birds eat squid."�Tony Marr
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