One way to gauge the awesomeness of a place is the amount of wildlife it supports. By that metric (filtered through my raptor-philic world view), Panoche Valley and Santa Ana Valley pass the awesomeness test with flying colors (no pun intended*).
Yesterday, I made my annual pilgrimage to the area with a group of my fellow banders. For three of them, it was their first visit to the area so it was fun to have the opportunity to see it with new eyes. They'd heard from us that it was a raptor rich area, and that we had a good chance to see a lot of less common raptors like eagles, ferruginous hawks and prairie falcons. Of course, once you say something like that, there's a good chance the bird gods will have a little chuckle at your expense and not let the desired species show up. Fortunately, they were feeling cooperative. We weren't half a mile down the road on Quien Sabe when the first eagle appeared - a young Golden being harrassed by a raven who wanted the eagle's meal.
* no pun intended on "flying colors" because even though we saw plenty of flying, the lack of rain has left the landscape in a neutral beige, as you can see.
We met at Quien Sabe Road in Tres Pinos, CA, and headed toward Santa Ana Valley Road - a real winter raptor hotspot as it turns out. After watching the raven (and two redtails) annoy the golden eagle for five minutes or so, we think the raven finally got the ground squirrel. The eagle, a juvenile, must have been feeling frustrated about it because it took off after some of the cattle on the hillside and got them all running. Okay, a bit of anthropomorphizing there, but ...
We continued down Quien Sabe and saw another eagle, several redtails and kestrels and a smattering of shrikes. At the corner of Quien Sabe and Santa Ana, we stopped for a quick look around and spotted two bright white birds in the tree across the road. Oh, lookie - our first ferruginous hawks of the day! Yummy!
As we stood there admiring the pair, we tried to count the swarm of blackbirds filling the fields around them. There was a watering tank below the tree that kept them coming in by the hundreds. As we watched, a dark bird across the hillside behind - another eagle, perhaps? No, a dark morph ferruginous. Very Cool!
But we weren't done with the eagles, not by long shot. We scanned the fencelines around the field, and at the far end spotted a large perched raptor. Redtail? No, too big. Too dark for a ferrug. Eagle... gotta be. It had a dark head, but also some white stuff. Ah! third year bald eagle. (if you looked in a field guide, it would show this as second year plumage, but since it's January, it's now a third year bird, and... ah - screw it. It was a cool bird.)
So what attracts so many raptors here in the winter? It's open ag land, and the fields are disked after the fall harvest. That means rodents out there (and there are a lot of them) lose their cover and are easy pickin's. Watching these guys planting was a sobering reminder of how hard some people are working to make our own food easy pickin's. While they were at work behind us, we watched two ferruginous hawks, a golden eagle and a handful of redtails work the field in front of us.
We went a little further down the road to see an Eastern Phoebe who'd been wintering here - a lifer for a few in our group, and a new one for the California lists of the others. Back-tracking along Santa Ana, we encountered more raptors including a prairie falcon who was still on the same pole that it had been on an hour earlier as we were outbound, and yet another golden eagle...
A bit more toodling around to a nice little riparian corridor, with lots of White-breasted nuthatches, Western Bluebirds, zono-sparrows, jays and a good sized flock (or maybe two) of California Quail.
We headed to Paicines reservoir, which was surprisingly full of water, but also surprisingly bereft of waterfowl. We saw 6-8 species there, but all were hugging the far shore. We used to meet at the reservoir at 8am, and on this trip we didn't get there until well after 10:30, so it's possible that the lower numbers were due to our late arrival.
Since we'd spent so much time watching the hawks along Santa Ana, we didn't linger, and started our trip down Panoche Road itself. We kinda blitzed through the earlier parts of the road since we were trying to get to the valley proper by lunchtime - it was 11 by the time we started and there were 26 miles between us and the bar. Still, we had to stop and enjoy a few specialties of the area. For one or more people in the group, this was a lifer:
Phainopepla are present in many locations along the road - if there is mistletoe, there will be phainopepla at some point. They're not abundant, though, and they can be hard to spot though, so it's not a slam dunk. This one was very cooperative at one of our few stops (known as "the woodpecker house" to our group). We also had a RB Sapsucker there, Cal and Spotted Towhees and some nice close wrentits.
Starting to get hungry, but not too hungry to watch a prairie falcon eat. We saw the bird atop a power pole in a field, and it was obviously busy taking something apart. We didn't want to disturb it while it was eating, so I held off on getting out to take a photo until after it was finished. Okay, not much of a picture but ... a magnificent bird.
Lunch at the Panoche Inn, a rancher bar that gets swarmed with birders on winter weekends. They keep a book of sightings on the bar. Some years there are great birds here - you can sit at the picnic tables outside and be surrounded by tri-colored blackbirds, and there are often kingbirds here. (Odd to see them in winter, odder still that it's as likely to be Cassin's as Western.) Not much bird activity this year, so we hit the road again.
Down toward Silver Creek Ranch, in search of Mountain Plovers and Mountain Bluebirds. People haven't been reporting the plovers this year, and we dipped on them. We did get a few nice looks at Mountain Bluebirds, though. Not as many as some years, but my understanding is that they've been scattered around the valley floor. We did get to see a few more of our constant companions for the day - Loggerhead Shrikes - a tiny predator, but a predator nonetheless.
Now it was time to head over Shotgun Pass and over to Mercey Hot Springs for the last official stop on the itinerary, the $5 Owls. We call them that because there's a day use fee at the location, but when you consider the number of owls in one spot, they amortize out to about .30 each.
They have a particular fondness for a pair of trees back by the bath house; I think our final tally was 15. It's pretty easy to find their tree - just walk around until you see the spot where the ground is covered with pellets. And I do mean covered... these guys yack up a lot of ex-rodents. Another visitor was pointing out that at least one of the pellets contained the skull of an endangered Kangaroo Rat. oopsie...
Wandering elsewhere on the grounds, we saw a number of Say's Phoebes. In a tamarisk grove at one end of the property, there were two barns owls concealed deep in the foliage. I noticed this one, but somehow overlooked its companion who was just about ten feet away. Well... look at the vegetation and a I guess you can see how it's easy to miss them in this stuff.
Time to meander back... We had one more surprise sighting on our return trip. There was a group of egrets - snowy and great - in a group of trees above the creek that runs along the road. We've never seen them in that particular area, but it almost looked like it might be a small rookery?
It was a really dry year out there, but last year's abundant rains apparently produced enough of a bumper crop of vegetation and insect and rodents to keep everyone well fed this winter. If you're in the Bay Area, it is a reasonable (though long) day trip. It should be good through February at least - worth the drive if you can spare a day.
In response to an inquiry from enhydra lutris, I've posted a set of comments that include directions for these locations.