It was an extremely beautiful day out in Panoche Valley today— puffy, white clouds and golden grasses. Birding was a mixed bag, but overall very interesting.
Highlights included: 1 SAGE THRASHER and 3-5 SAGEBRUSH SPARROWS, CASSIN’S KINGBIRD, LONG-BILLED CURLEW, and many of the “regular” birds in the valley and foothills.
Heading east along Panoche Road from Highway 25 in Hollister, I saw two RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and good number of Yellow-billed Magpies. PHAINOPEPLAS were scattered along the drive and at the Miller and Summit Ranches. At Panoche Summit (the winding and highest spot along the road with many gray pines), I found one VARIED THRUSH and a Hairy Woodpecker. Winding toward the valley at the McCullough Ranch, I saw a PRAIRIE FALCON and dark morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK. Another FERRUGINOUS HAWK was at Spanish Cattle and another near the Panoche Inn.
Along Norton Road (which is at Panoche School), I saw 16 LONG-BILLED CURLEWS. I looked hard for Mountain Plovers along this road, but totally dipped. I found no Mountain Plovers anywhere in the valley. There was a flock of HORNED LARKS, though.
Continuing along Panoche Road toward the Silver Creek Ranch area, I stopped at the bales of hay where 750 or so TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS have been wintering. While concentrating on trying to find color-banded Trikes, I almost didn’t notice a SAGE THRASHER on the fence. It was working between the hay bale lot and the ranch signed as #34672. Near the Silver Creek Ranch house, a CASSIN’S KINGBIRD was on the utility wire over the road. Two MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS near the corrals at Silver Creek Ranch were the only ones I saw along this road. Where are they?
Heading down to the Panoche Creek crossing, I saw 2 GREATER ROADRUNNERS, another FERRUGINOUS HAWK, and another flock of HORNED LARKS, and flocks of LARK SPARROWS and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS. I crossed the creek. Be aware: the water level is at least up to my Subaru Outback bumper, if not over it. If it rains, I will not be able to cross this creek. Also, the “road” is already muddy on both sides of the crossing. That is probably the bigger issue. Rain is forecast for Monday and Tuesday. I suspect that only 4WD trucks will be able to get through the creek and manage the road, if the rains come.
But, my reason for getting to the other side of the creek was to try to relocate the flock of five SAGEBRUSH SPARROWS that I originally found on December 21, 2017. On December 22, I ran into two birders out in the valley who went with me to see this flock. One of them also photographed at least one or two of the sparrows. On December 25, Tom and Beth Hamel went out to see the sparrows. She successfully photographed them. I didn’t want to report the sparrows until the ID was firm. The ID has been confirmed by other birders. However, on the Panoche Valley CBC, Alex Rinkert and I tried to find the sparrows without any success. Sagebrush Sparrow in not unprecedented in San Benito County, however it is a “rare” bird in our area. The species has also been reported and photographed at the Panoche Hills BLM area (Fresno County), both last year and this year on the CBC.
This small flock of SAGEBRUSH SPARROWS is probably anyone’s best bet for a county tick. They are tricky to find. Patience will help. After crossing the Panoche Creek on Panoche Road, continue about 2.3 miles. Slow down as soon as you begin seeing the dark green bushes of Mormon tea (ephedra). The Sagebrush Sparrows mostly run on the ground, with their tails cocked, very much like a roadrunner. (This is not a defining field mark, however.) They prefer to hide and hang out on the ground at the base of the shrubs. Originally, they were with only 2 White-crowned Sparrows. However, today, I saw about 15 or so white-crowns with the Sagebrush Sparrows. So, you’ll need to take care in sorting sparrows.
I would recommend getting out there this weekend, if you want to try to see the Sagebrush Sparrows because of the forecast for rain on Monday (over an inch) and Tuesday. Rain will most likely make this portion of Panoche Road impassable to AWD and other vehicles.
Returning to the valley, I found four more MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS along Recalde Road (impassable in wet weather). By and large, Mountain Bluebirds have been MIA.
I zipped up to the Panoche Hills BLM area, but didn’t find much because it was too late in the day. BTW, the target shooting in the area, and the Griswold Hills BLM area, had been extreme.
Finally, a word about the LONG-EARED OWLS at Mercey Hot Springs. Folks doing the Panoche Valley CBC had a difficult time locating any Long-eared Owls, but finally found two. It seems that Great-horned Owls have moved in, and possibly displaced, or eaten (?) the Long-eared Owls. So, it might not be worth a stop at the hot springs right now.
I haven’t entered today’s eBird checklists, but will try to do so tomorrow. There are other checklists and some photos of the Sagebrush Sparrows. Please do eBird checklists, if you are an eBirder. There are many hot spots along Panoche Road and throughout the valley. Please do not use the hot spot, “Panoche Valley General Area.”
Good Luck and Happy Trails,
Shearwater Journeys, Inc.
PO Box 190
Hollister, CA 95024
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