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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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A Split Lifer on Mines Road

I had first seen a sage sparrow on the morning of April 10, 2003 in the the South Tufa area of Mono Lake. This is the time of year when sparrows are up singings as they defend their breeding territory. This is also the time of year when they are easiest to see.

Then in 2013, the sage sparrow was split into two distinct species. A split is when ornithologists determine that one species is now considered two separate species, usually using DNA analysis. Before these were all considered subspecies of sage sparrow. They were now divided into the sagebrush sparrow and the Bell’s sparrow. Birders do love a good split because it means there are even more birds to add to their life lists!

The bird I had seen in the spring of 2003 was now considered a sagebrush sparrow and now I had to look for a Bell’s. And I knew just where to look!

I picked Grasshopper Sparrow up at 6:15 AM. Our destination was the legendary birding Mecca known as Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon. This area encompasses three counties: Alameda, Santa Clara, and Stanislaus. Specialty species of this area are: golden eagle, prairie falcon, greater roadrunner, Lewi’s woodpecker, yellow-billed magpie, Lawrence’s goldfinch, canyon wren, phainopepla, lark and rufous-crowned sparrow, and of course Bell’s sparrow.

A much sought after bird: the yellow-billed magpie. Why? This is a California endemic, it is only found within the state boundaries of the Golden State. We found ten in the first few miles of Mines Road. This two where at the Junction of Mines and Del Valle Roads.

From the wine growing region in Livermore, Mines Road climbs out of the flats and weaves up a canyon dotted with oaks. This is probably the most beautiful area in the Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon area,

While the American kestrel is a common falcon, seeing a male perching in morning light , below Mines Road, is a jaw dropping experience.

Our destination was a bend in the road, about five miles from the Santa Clara County line. this is where Bell’s had been recently reported. We pulled off Mines Raid near a roadside memorial.

I fired up my Bluetooth speaker and we stood in front of a hillside of chemise. Within two notes of it’s recorded song, a Bell’s sparrow shot up into the top of a bush. ABA lifer!

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Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon

We met in Livermore, under the tall flag pole in the center of town. Dickcissel, Brown Creeper, and I were heading to the southeast on the legendary Bay Area birding route: Mines Road to Del Puerto Canyon.

We had a few target birds for the trip: golden eagle, Lawrence’s goldfinch, and Bell’s sparrow. These would all be lifers for BRCR and the Lawrence’s was a sought after near-endemic species in California and Dickcissel had wanted to tick this bird off for a while now. (I had added this bird to my list on June 6, 2002 but have not seen the finch since then.)

It was a beautiful morning and we pulled over from time to time, willing that far off raptor into a golden eagle but there were all red-tail hawks and turkey vultures. The California endemic yellow-billed magpie was a nice consultation.

Mines Road was relativly busy on this Saturday with a bike race and many weekend warriors taking either their covetable sports cars or motorcycles out for a spring spin. We seemed to be the only birders on this stretch of road.

Mines started to climb up into the green oak-studded hills giving us wonderful views in all directions and a wide panorama of the blue cobalt skies. Any large bird soaring caught our attention. At this point we had seen red-tails and turkey vultures, a few accipiters and a female American kestrel.

Between mile 11 and 12, I pulled over. Something seemed about right on this stretch of road. I scanned the skies and a very stable looking raptor caught my attention as it circled to our north. This bird was uniformly dark with “plank-like” wings with large primaries. We all knew what it was but we didn’t utter it’s name. Incredibly the bird flew south giving us an amazing rapturous flyby. “There’s your golden!”

We continued down Mines Road going from Alameda County to the the county of my birth: Santa Clara. Along the way we enjoyed views of California scrub-jay, acorn woodpeckers, California quail, ash-throated flycatcher, some randy cows, and western kingbird. At one pull out we had a scope full of a singing male lazuli bunting. Always a beautiful spring treat!

We then headed east at “The Junction” and stopped at Frank Raines Regional Park for lunch. Here is were we found all the other birders in the area with the same intention of having lunch and doing a bit of birding between bites. I talked with another birder and he noted that it was not too birdy. He had golden eagle and roadrunner but no Lawrence’s goldfinch (LAGO).

After lunch we headed to the Deer Creek Campground which was a noted hotspot for LAGO. This campground was very popular with off-roaders and their noise-polluting vehicles. This was not an ideal place to bird because it was noisy and full of families that incredulously looked on as our binocular-sporting trio wandered through their camp, looking up into trees.

In a tree above a campsite we heard a very finch-like song. We tried to locate the singer but with no luck. Two finches flew off towards the creek and we did not get very good looks. Not good enough to call them LAGOs. The finches soon returned and this time the male perched on top of the tree in full view. He sang giving us great looks. We noted his black cap and face, gray back, and his yellow ‘bra”. Lifer for Dickcissel and Creeper!

Dickcissel’s photo of the male Lawrence’s goldfinch, singing at the top of a tree in the Deer Creek Campground.