ContentsPutah and Cache: Upper Cache Creek

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Birds of Putah Cache: Oak Savanna, Oak Woodland, and Chaparral

John Kemper

Oak woodland and oak savanna

These habitats, abundant in the Wilson Valley area, cover most of the hills above riparian areas and below chaparral. Many of the species found in the riparian areas occur here also, such as the woodpeckers, flycatchers, titmice, vireos, scrub-jays, warblers, and sparrows. However, this is the most likely place to find some species, such as band-tailed pigeon (uncommon), western bluebird, common raven, and rufous-crowned sparrow. A special summer visitor here, and one which is very difficult to find, is Lawrence's goldfinch. This species summers almost entirely in California, and eastern birders often are very anxious to see one. In winter, the birds go to Arizona and Mexico.

In the winter, large flocks of American robins can be found in this habitat and adjacent ones. In the 1996 Audubon Christmas Count, for example, the participants observed more than 13,000 robins in the Putah Creek area.

A non-native resident of oak woodland is the wild turkey. California originally had no wild turkeys, and, after many failures, they were successfully introduced into California from Texas. The Putah-Cache bioregion got its first wild turkeys about 1980, and now they have proliferated almost everywhere in the watershed.

Chaparral

Many people look upon chaparral as a wasteland, but it actually has a rich birdlife. The best access to this habitat is in Cache Creek Canyon, along Rayhouse Road, which is much beloved by local birders because of its special birds. (The road has been in existence for 125 years, and once served as the principal stage route from Yolo County to Clear Lake.)

Most of the birds of the chaparral are secretive. However, in spring, especially in April and May, they tend to sing from the tops of the bushes, and become highly visible. The California thrasher (another near-endemic of California) is easily seen as it sings from the bush tops in spring, but otherwise tends to skulk in the underbrush. The sage sparrow also sings prominently in spring, but otherwise lurks in the brush. (The coastal subspecies of sage sparrow, called "Bell's sparrow," is considered by some authorities to be a separate species.) Another special bird here is the mountain quail, which is seldom seen but whose loud quee-ark! can be heard a mile away in spring. Finally, the wrentit's loud, descending, "ping-pong ball" sound is heard throughout the year, and is the characteristic sound of the chaparral.

Some of the special summertime visitors to this habitat are black-headed grosbeak, common poorwill, lazuli bunting, and black-chinned sparrow. The most surprising of these, perhaps are the grosbeak and the bunting. Black-headed grosbeaks are commonly thought of as residents of well-wooded areas, such as Yosemite Valley, yet here they are, singing gloriously in the chaparral.

Male lazuli buntings are stunningly beautiful, with turquoise blue on the head, cinnamon across the breast, and a white belly; the females, on the other hand, are drab-a perfect example of an almost unidentifiable "little brown bird." The males seem to prefer the dead branches of trees as singing perches, and seem perfectly at home in the chaparral, even though they are often found right down in the heart of the Central Valley in riparian areas.

The black-chinned sparrow here is almost at the northern limit of its range. As a result, it isn't present every year, and is never numerous. Superficially, it resembles a junco, and is best detected by its song, which begins with a slow, plaintive sweet sweet sweet, and then continues in a rapid trill.

Bird watchers are likely to see a common poorwill at night, or dusk. The poorwill, like the related eastern whip-poor-will, is named after its song. Not suprisingly, the song of the poor will is essentially the last two syllables of the whip-poor-will's song. These songs are heard throughout the chaparral at dusk. You may see one right in the road after dark, invisible except for its eyes glowing in the headlights.

Anywhere in the high county, it pays to keep an eye out for a golden eagle. A large, dark brown bird with extremely long wings, soaring at a great height, is likely to be a golden eagle, though it may be a bald eagle. An adult bald eagle is instantly recognized in adulthood by its white head and tail and an adult golden eagle by its all brown color, but immature bald and golden eagles can be confusingly alike. Also, you will likely scrutinize many turkey vultures before you spot an eagle, because the entire bioregion is abundantly supplied with vultures.

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