Del Puerto Canyon and the Canyon Wren

After enjoying brief but distinctive views of the Bell’s sparrow we headed south on Mines Road towards The Junction.

The Junction is the junction of three roads: Mines, San Antonio Valley, and Del Puerto Canyon Roads. At the corner is a store which is popular with cyclists (both ped and motor) and birders.

We continued on to San Antonio Valley Road. The open oak grassland is a great place to look for Lewis’s woodpecker. I have seen this woodpecker at this location on a few other trips but today was not our day so we turned back and headed northeast on Del Puerto Road.

When headed into Stanislaus County on Del Puerto Canyon Road, I only think of seeing and hearing one bird: the canyon wren.

Hearing the spiraling song of the canyon wren is one of those emblematic sounds that is often used in nature documentaries, television shows, and feature films. Along with the primal scream of the red-tailed hawk, the canyon wren’s song is often used to represent desolate desert wilderness. Think: broken down car on a one lane desert road, miles from nowhere, cue the canyon wren.

Del Puerto Canyon looks very different form the time that I had last visited. A wildfire, the SCU lighting complex, burned in five counties for 44 days from August to October in 2020. The fire consumed 369,624 acres. We may never know how this affects the local animal populations and also how this might affect the future avian migrants like the western kingbird, ash-throated flycatcher, and Bullock’s oriole.

There are many arid rocky canyons and steep hillsides along the 25 mile road that is perfect habitat for the rock loving canyon wren.

Canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) is at home on rock as most birds are on limb. This is a small rufous and white-throated wren with a white-flecked back, ending in a short, thinly banded tail. The canyon wren forages on rocks and crevices, exploring rock for insects and other morsels. Pete Dunne describes the wren this way, “Movements often have a theatrical air. The bird pauses before a jump, as if posing”.

We stopped at any habitat that looked good. I played it’s contact call, as well as it’s cinematic song that Dunne describes as “heart-gladdening tumble of notes”. We did not get a response. We tried at a handful of inviting habitats. Nothing.

At our fifth stop, just west from where as the Del Puerto Creek passes under the Del Puerto Canyon Road, we stopped for another attempt. In the past, this location has been reliable for canyon wren.

Within a minute I heard a contact call of a canyon wren from across the road. Now the tough part was locating the rufous gem. Because their call is so loud, judging distance can be a bit challenging. The contact call stopped and the canyon wren erupted into it’s signature song. Now we only had to get bins on this Del Puerto Canyon classic!

Young eyes have an edge over aging eyes and Grasshopper Sparrow spotted the canyon wren on the near bank, perched on a rock (of course), singing it’s heart out.

We spend a good ten minutes watching and listening to the small bit of feathered rapture. It stayed perched on the it’s rock, with it’s back towards us and then it turned to show it’s white throat. Later it perched down in a little rocky cave. This is what is illustrated in the featured sketch.

Our first view of the singing canyon wren, perched on a rock of of course!
A closer view of it’s epic song. It’s amazing that such a small bird produces such a loud and intense song.
The curious canyon wren, looking our way.

Sketching note: I first started the featured painting with a lot of wet on wet and I was attempting to build up layer upon layer. I came to the point where I hated the sketch and wanted to abandon it, half-finished. Then I remember the sage advice from my childhood friend Erik, “If you don’t think your poetry’s shit, you’re a shitty poet!” The next morning I came back to the work, this time holding it together with black ink. I built up layers on the rock using different mediums and tools like watercolor, masking fluid, pen, colored pencil, and charcoal. I used a variety of methods and technics to create texture and depth including brush, tooth brush, finger smudging, wet on wet, glazing, hatching, dotting, and paint splatter. I worked on this failed work until I loved it.

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