ContentsPutah and Cache: Lake Solano

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Birds of Putah-Cache: Lake Solano and Upstream

John Kemper

From Monticello Dam to the Putah Creek Sinks, Putah Creek has important riparian habitat for birds. The six mile stretch below Monticello Dam, including Lake Solano, has the greatest variety of bird life, mostly because of the permanent water from the managed flows of the dam. A fairly large number of double-crested cormorants compete year-round with fishermen, as do a smaller population of osprey. Although neither cormorants nor osprey have been observed nesting at this location, cormorants nest elsewhere in Yolo County, and osprey nest at Lake Berryessa.

Come winter, the quiet waters in the lower reaches of this stretch of Putah Creek almost always have wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, common mergansers, and hooded mergansers. In fact, this section of Putah Creek is one of the better places in California to see hooded mergansers. In recent years, a small number of Barrow's goldeneyes, rare in our region, has appeared regularly each winter.

Lake Solano County Park lies adjacent to the quiet-water stretch of Putah Creek. The picnic area, heavily used on weekends, can provide a quiet birding experience during the week, and offers birdwatchers an opportunity to see a phainopepla. Phainopeplas are usually thought of as desert-dwelling birds, but they occur sparsely in the foothills on both sides of the Central Valley. Phainopeplas favor trees with mistletoe, so mistletoe clumps are a good place to spot them. The trees near the picnic area and the nature trail adjacent to the campground are excellent areas to see woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches. A special bird to look for is Nuttall's woodpecker (almost a California endemic), which is resident here year-round.

In winter, another special bird is the red-breasted sapsucker, which is actually red on its head as well as its breast, and is sometimes erroneously called a redheaded woodpecker. (Redheaded woodpecker is an eastern species). A highly visible, noisy, and abundant bird is the acorn woodpecker. Acorn woodpeckers are year-round residents, live in colonies, and store their acorns in holes drilled in trees and telephone poles. Listen for their raucous ja-cob! ja-cob! ja-cob!

Four abundant "little birds" of this habitat are ruby-crowned kinglet, oak titmouse, yellow-rumped warbler, and lesser goldfinch. (Oak titmouse was recently separated from plain titmouse into a separate species, and is a near-endemic in California). The titmouse and goldfinch are year-round residents, while the kinglet and warbler are here in the winter only.

The oak titmouse is most easily spotted in spring, when its loud peeto peeto peeto breeding sound is heard everywhere. Ruby-crowned kinglets can be easily spotted because they give off a rapid, scolding je-dit je-dit je-dit when disturbed, and bounce nervously around in the bushes. Lesser goldfinches move about in winter in large flocks, and the Putah Creek area has sometimes produced the highest winter counts in the nation for this species. Also, in winter, yellow-rumped warblers forage in loose flocks, and at times seem to be the most common bird.

The wooded areas along the creek and on the adjacent slopes are important for owls, especially great horned owls and western screech-owls. An unusual and often overlooked species is the northern pygmy-owl, which is only slightly larger than a sparrow. The Putah Creek area, during the annual Christmas counts, has sometimes recorded the largest number of northern pygmy-owls anywhere in North America, though the highest number recorded here is seven, and most years it is zero.

The entire stretch of Putah Creek from Monticello Dam all the way to the Yolo Bypass is well known for its spring and fall migrants. April, May, August and September are the best months to see them. Some of the migrants are flycatchers such as olive-sided, willow, Pacific-slope, Hammond's, and dusky; vireos such as Cassin's and warbling (note: Cassin's vireo was recently split from solitary vireo, and made into a separate species); warblers such as yellow, Nashville, black-throated gray, Townsend's, Wilson's, and MacGillivray's; and western tanager.

Some prominent summer breeders in the riparian areas of both Putah and Cache creeks are western wood-pewee, ash-throated flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, Bullock's oriole, and various swallows. In recent years, one or two yellow-breasted chats have been observed singing in the thick riparian growth on Putah Creek a couple of miles downstream from Monticello Dam.

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