Desk-bound Nature Lover

My Blog: Occasional postings about the joys of birding, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.

My life: I spend most of my days in offices, looking at a computer screen, and waiting for those few weekends when I can get out and enjoy some remnant of our precious natural heritage. But, boy, do I live on those weekends!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Weekend of Owls and Eagles

Over the three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend, I went on a trip with a group from the bay area chapters of the National Audubon Society. We planned to visit two great birding areas to the southeast of the San Francisco Bay area: the San Luis wildlife refuge complex near Los Baños, and Panoche Valley near Hollister.

San Luis Refuge Complex
The San Luis refuge complex is comprised of the San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges, various state and county refuges, and innumerable private hunting clubs in Merced County. These hold a fair amount of wetland and grassland, which give some taste of what the Central Valley of California looked like before most of it was converted to pesticide-poisoned cotton fields, vegetable fields, and almond orchards. The area is very popular with birders and with duck hunters, and we saw and heard plenty of the latter during this trip.

The group gathered in the town of Santa Nella at about eight o’clock on Saturday morning. On this day there were about eight of us in the group, all from the Audubon (San Mateo County) and Mount Diablo (Contra Costa County) Audubon chapters. We were very ably led by a retired rancher who I will call “Mr Macho”. I have been birding off and on for about 23 years now, and have done it fairly seriously for about seven of those years, but I was a relative novice in this group.

We birded mostly from our cars, driving along narrow country roads and stopping where ever there was something interesting to see and enough room to park. It was a rainy day, but the rain did not dampen our spirits at all.

At the end of the day, I tallied up all the species of birds we had seen and counted 68 of them. The most common birds that day were American Coots. They were everywhere. Coots are a successful group, and in California they can be found in any more-or-less natural place that has enough water to get wet in. It doesn’t take long to stop finding Coots interesting. Mostly we were looking for less numerous waterfowl among the hundreds of Coots. The most spectacular bird seen was an adult Bald Eagle which we sighted flying low over the marshlands. Also spectacular were the immense flocks of Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese at Merced National Wildlife Refuge. These white geese gather in flocks of thousands there and at times almost darken the sky. At the same place, we saw a considerable flock of Sand Hill Cranes, which are also an inspiring sight.

We stayed the night in the town of Los Baños. Some of us, including myself and Mr Macho, were at the Regency Hotel, which was an over-priced dive. Every room seemed to have something which didn’t work. Good thing I’m not that much into luxury.

Panoche Valley
We gathered again at eight the next morning, and headed south about half an hour to the east end of the Panoche Valley. The Panoche Valley is desert at the west end and piney woodlands at the east end. This is cowboy country, where almost everybody dresses like the guys in “Brokeback Mountain” and drives pick-up trucks with gun racks. They are also very friendly to birders, and never fail to wave as they pass you. This is a place where California birders go to find species which are hard to find elsewhere.

Mr Macho particularly wanted to find four species: Mountain Bluebirds, Chukars, Mountain Plovers, and Phainopeplas. At the end of the day our score was one for four of those. We saw plenty of Mountain Bluebirds, which are the bluest of the three species of bluebird, but the others escaped us.

Our best stop of the day was at a rustic little resort called Mercey Springs, at the desert end of the valley, which Mr Macho knew about. For five dollars each, the lady in charge there let us onto the grounds and pointed out a little grove of trees where a flock of owls roosts during the daylight hours. What a spot! There had to be at least a dozen Long-eared Owls, a couple of Barn Owls, and a Great Horned Owl. Of the first two, these were the first I had ever seen.

My third life-list bird of the trip was in the middle of the day, when we spotted a Cassin’s Kingbird sitting on a wire. Central California is the extreme northern end of this bird’s range. It is quite rare here in the summer and even rarer in the winter. It was quite a find!

This was also a great day for seeing eagles. We spotted a Golden Eagle at the west end of the valley. At Paicines Reservoir at the east end of the valley, we were treated to the sight of two Bald Eagles and a Golden Eagle all sitting in the same tree. What a sight!

Henry W Coe State Park

After arriving at the west end of Panoche Valley, the group split up and went separate ways. But I still had another day left to my weekend, so I drove up to Henry W Coe State Park for a night of camping.

Henry W Coe is the second largest state park in California, and it must be one of the largest state parks in the country. It is very mountainous, and the mountains are covered with oak savannah. It is popular with backpackers, some of whom, I’ve heard, actually prefer it to the more well-known parks in the Sierras.

I set up my tent about sunset, and then started hiking. The moon was just past full and the sky was clear, so hiking at night was almost as easy as hiking in daylight. I had flashlights with me, but I only needed one at the shadier places.

After hiking a while, I bedded down for the night. It was chilly, but I had plenty of blankets. During the night I was serenaded. First a Western Screech-owl solo, then a Great Horned Owl duet, and finally a choir of Coyotes. Does it get any better than that?

I spent all the next day hiking and birding around the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking, and for the third day in a row I saw an eagle. This was a Golden Eagle soaring high over the oaks.


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