The first two days of March, in between two all too short weather systems, we found ourselves on a Nature Trip to the Grasslands National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) and the always fascinating Panoche Valley.
Early on the 1st day of the new month we made the quick drive to the San Luis NWR but, 1/2 mile before the entrance, diverted to the straight as an arrow 14 mile long Santa Fe Grade which follows the former path of the Railway for which it is named. Almost immediately we saw a small flock of Cliff Swallows inspecting a culvert – our first “FOS” (First of Season) bird sighting of the trip. Cliff Swallows reliably show up in Middle California this time of year (we’ve had them as early as Feb. 22). Great start! Two separate pairs of Yellow-billed Magpies were flying about the same area as were a half-dozen gregarious Great-tailed Grackles. The southern entry to the Grade is the high elevation point and from there up to Hwy 140 the area is generally marshy supporting many thousands of water birds. The private properties are primarily owned by duck hunting clubs but the season has been closed for some time now and the water birds generally allowed for close inspection as long as you stay in your car/blind. As expected by early March there are also thousands of iridescent Tree Swallows perched along power wires, barbed wire fences and just about anything else. Most are recently arrived, anxious and spook easily at any movement. Sit a while though and they gradually get use to your presence and we enjoyed perched birds from close range with some patience.
We puttered along without seeing any other vehicles for the first 6 miles or so spotting and estimating numbers of birds best as we could from the jeep. Nothing too unusual, just good solid numbers of all the expected species. Moderate numbers of Red-tails, a few Harrier, a Kite or two, oh, Hey! There’s an adult Bald Eagle stirring up hundreds of Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese! Picking out a Lesser Yellowlegs among the more numerous Greaters is always fun, a Sora sounds off, then a Virginia Rail, Noreen is the first to spy a candy corn-billed Common Gallinule. Marsh Wrens and Song Sparrows were firing off seemingly everywhere from the reeds. Deeper ponds held a few American White Pelicans, behemoths of the avian world. Aftre about 8 miles you reach the aptly named Gun Club Road which is worth a check. Continuing north on Santa Fe the habitat becomes somewhat drier with the expected shift in species diversity: More Meadow Larks than Marsh Wrens, Pipits than Common Yellowthroat. We stopped every once in a while and plugged into our casual census. By the time we reached Hwy. 140 we had logged 14 miles and 67 bird species. Not bad for an hour and 1/2 of looking. Distractions and diversions can make for some good times! Now, back to the original plan: San Luis!