Spring birding on Mines Road

Aaron Maizlish

EBB Folks,

Yesterday (4/21) I was able to spend the day birding with Eddie Monson, up Mines Road out of Livermore and down Del Puerto Canyon Road into the Central Valley.  We have nothing rare to report, but it was a very productive day "peak-spring” birding and so I though folks might be interested in a trip report that highlights where the birds are seen on this popular birding route.  I’ve seen a few requests for more information about Mines Road in the last couple of months.  Mine’s Road is good birding because it has 20+ miles of high quality California native vegetation climbing in elevation from the Livermore Valley up 2000’.  It's a narrow winding road (not to everyone’s liking), that is single lane for a long stretch, but with lots of places to pull over.  We had a good count of 78 species on the way up Mines Road, all in Alameda County.

First I have to just say though that it was really a pleasure to spend the day birding with good company, after more than a full year of solo-birding ridden with pandemic anxiety.  Eddie “the monsoon” Monson is a 13-year old neighbor who has turned into a fantastic, serious birder.  We’d been talking for months about birding together after I was fully vaccinated - which fortunately happened for me in time for spring.  Eddie hadn’t been on the Mines/Del Puerto circuit before.  He has “youthful” ears and good ID skills, and he gave me a good refresher course in ear-birding. 

We started up Mines Road at 6:44AM.  I don’t generally stop before Mile 4, but we wanted to take our time this morning and be thorough.  As a result we missed the dawn chorus further up the hill, and never found any big warbler flocks, but we made up for that with a great list of all of the expected birds. The day started with the Yellow-billed Magpies that are generally around Mile 2, some Bullock’s Orioles, and a heard only Common Yellowthroat, uncommon on Mines Road.  We had one Pac-Slope Flycatcher, which turned out to be the only empid of the day.

Past the junction with Del Valle, I always make a long stop at the farms before the bridge at about Mile 4.5. A dozen Bullock’s Orioles were chattering in the old Eucalyptus grove, as were Western Kingbirds, an early Yellow Warbler, and the usual sparrows, finches and doves. I startled a Barn Owl that was perched near the road who scurried deep into a crevice in a Eucalyptus stump.  A Killdeer was calling from the field. Great-horned Owls were missed, though they are generally up there. At the bridge we added a Lazuli Bunting and our first swallows (we had all five on both Mines and Del Puerto).   Surprisingly Phainopepla were not in the area, though we eventually had a smattering further up the road.

Heading up the hill we made frequent stops at various chaparral spots - I was hoping to hear Bell’s Sparrows but no luck on that. One productive patch of wildflowers at mile 8 had several Anna’s Hummingbirds - a female Selasphorus that was probably Rufous (by range), and a small zipper that could have been Calliope but that we left as unidentified.  We also started getting into Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers, which continued in small numbers all the way up the hill.   

Mile 10 is my favorite pull-out and we spent a lot of time here. I think if we would have been here earlier, as the sun was hitting the valley, we might have witnessed some major movement - but it was about 10am and quieting down - both upslope and downslope we had multiple Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Townsend’s and a Nashville Warbler that came up close.  Western Tanagers were on the move too, and more Grosbeaks. The pull outs between Mile 10 and Mile 14 are often productive - various stops added Purple Finch, California Thrasher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lincoln’s Sparrow in with the crowned sparrows, and a late Hermit Thrush.  At Mile 13 we had our first of several Rufous-crowned Sparrows, singing from a fence post.  Further up we encountered small flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons and two Steller’s Jay, though Acorn Woodpeckers become the dominant lifeform at this end of the canyon.  We also encountered four Golden Eagles - two in flight and two others perched at the top of a tree on a distant ridge.

I didn’t stop long at the cow pastures at Mile 18 - it was getting warm and dry for April. I was hoping to hear a Chat, but that was a no-show. 

The rest of the report is out of Alameda County - so EBB_Sightings purists should stop here.

After entering Santa Clara County and heading over the fire-damaged summit  Eddie almost immediately starting hearing the familiar tinkle of Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  The stream crossing at the bottom of the grade, marked Horsethief Canyon on Google Maps reliably produced a nice flock of Lawrence’s (this is my go-to spot for them).   It’s always amazing to me how much the Larrys seem to hate Alameda County - but they love this spot just over the hill.  I decided to drive a few miles past the junction on San Antonio Road to look at the two farm ponds that could, in theory, hold a migrating sandpiper or two.  Neither had any today - the water is still a bit high in both of them. The fields in the valley still have a lot of Tricolored Blackbirds, which made the detour worthwhile.

We got to Del Puerto Canyon Road right at noon and headed over into Stanislaus County.  The upper canyon held a smattering of hummingbirds and warblers but it was mostly quiet and burnt, without much regrowth away from the roadside.  Adobe Spring was totally dead.  (A side note, the last time I was here, on January 6th, I encountered Thick-billed Fox Sparrows - which had been unreported in Stanislaus Co.)   We failed on Canyon Wrens and Rock Wrens (our biggest miss of the day), but had better birding further down the canyon.  A long stop at the Frank Raines Campground was quite productive around the river and quite unproductive at the picnic sites.  Our best stop was around Mile 8 where we encountered a big flock of Lawrence’s Goldfinch that provided photo opportunities.  It was a burn area with some wilfdflower regrowth and with healthy oaks on both sides of the road - by now we were also picking up most of the western migrants that we had seen on Mines Road - grosbeak, tanager, Ash-throated, oriole, etc.   I spotted a single Prairie Falcon and Eddie spotted a single dark Merlin, both in flight.   The Graffiti Rocks at Mile 4 were great, as usual, with lots of Bullock’s Orioles and the full suite of expected swallows and swifts - Eddie had a single Vaux Swift that I missed.  Another Golden Eagle passed overhead.  At the Tree Tobacco plants below Mile 4, that grow on the west side of the road we found a few Anna’s Hummingbirds - but nothing rare this time, and surprisingly our first Lark Sparrows of the day. On our way out of the canyon we picked up Savannah Sparrows, two Loggerhead Shrikes, and many more Kingbirds and Meadowlarks.  We were out at 3PM.

All in all, the trip count was 97 species - a good number for this 50 mile route. This was the first time I’ve taken a full eight hours to do the drive, and it was by far the most stops I’ve made along the way.  It was great to bird with a serious young-birder, and to have the opportunity to learn from each other.

Good spring birding everyone,

Aaron Maizlish
San Francisco, CA 

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