Calaveras County. It’s (perfect) for the birds.

Nuttall's Woodpecker by Barry Boulton

With elevation ranges from just over 200 feet to 7,000 feet, Calaveras County contains a wide variety of habitats suitable for many interesting bird species and in fact, we’re home to over 250 species annually. Of course, not all of those can be seen at any one time because many are migrants. Winter visitors such as ducks arrive from the frozen north, and songbirds join us in spring and summer from Central and South America.


American Dipper by John Turner


Our mountain habitats are perfect for one of my favorite species, the American Dipper. This species is so named because as it stands on rocks partially submerged in fast-moving rivers, it displays its signature move, the up and down bob. This is probably a means of signaling to its mate since auditory communication is difficult over the roar of the river. The Dipper can be found in the middle fork of the Stanislaus River, accessible from Camp 9 Road off Parrotts Ferry Road in Vallecito. Known as the Water Ouzel in the 1800s, this species was also a favorite of John Muir’s and he waxed lyrical on the subject:

“Find a fall, a cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complimentary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained.”

I’ve watched adult Dippers diving into the fast-moving waters where they fly underwater or walk while holding on to rocks with their claws while searching for aquatic invertebrates. This last summer I watched a loudly complaining youngster being encouraged by its parents, very much against its will, to get into the water to forage for itself. It did eventually, but only after a noisy pantomime! to watch these events in action.


Brown Creeper by Jim and Deb Chagares

Pileated Woodpecker - Peggy Sells


The Brown Creeper which can be seen at Calaveras Big Trees State Park is found on the trunks of the giant sequoias, particularly in the north grove. Look for a brown bird, rather like a wren only somewhat larger, which moves up the trunk from the base, searching for insects, beetles and spiders or their larvae or eggs. Woodpeckers can also be found here. In the north grove you’ll generally see a White-headed Woodpecker and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see and hear the impressive Pileated Woodpecker as I did in the snow last winter. Around the county, the Nuttall’s Woodpecker is a year-round favorite.


Common Poorwill by Peggy Sells


In the chaparral areas, you might be fortunate to see a Common Poorwill in your car headlights on a gravel road as it forages for insects. This fascinating species is one of the few birds that can actually go into short-term hibernation if environmental conditions get tough and there’s insufficient food. Under these circumstances, its body temperature may drop as much as 50 degrees F below normal to allow it to survive for several weeks.


Acorn Woodpecker by Barry Boulton


One of our perennial favorites is the highly social Acorn Woodpecker viewable in the Murphys area, particularly at Ironstone Vineyards. This species features multi-generational parenting in which more than one generation typically and noisily feeds and protects the new young. Another noisy species common at these higher elevations is the Steller’s Jay which, interestingly enough, we are now seeing at lower elevations in the county where previously only the Western Scrub Jay was situated.


Steller's Jay by Barry Boulton


Of course, this is only a taste of the excellent birding that you can enjoy in Calaveras County even while visiting your favorite winery. Vineyards generally have bushes suitable for ground-foraging birds such as the California Towhee and several sparrow species. Better still, they will leave surplus fruit that is loved by the gorgeous Cedar Waxwing which arrives in small flocks of perhaps 20 birds to gorge themselves on the vines.


Cedar Waxwing by Barry Boulton


Guest blogger, Barry Boulton, is the newsletter editor for the Central Sierra Audubon Society . Questions for Barry? You can email him at [email protected]. We’d love to get your input. Have you seen some interesting species in Calaveras County? Any personal recommendations on good viewing areas? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.


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