Jim Gain

(reprinted from “Birding in and Around San Joaquin County”)

DIRECTIONS: From the Stockton area – Take I-5 through Lathrop, past the Westley exit to the Patterson exit. From areas south – Take 1-5 north from Santa Nella to the Patterson exit. From the Bay Area – Take Highway 580 east, then south to where it merges with I-5, and go past the Westley exit to the Patterson exit. From downtown Modesto – Drive down H Street, which becomes Paradise Road, to Carpenter Road and turn left (south). Go for another 8.5 miles and make a right (west) on West Main Street [J17], which leads into the town of Patterson. Go for another 5.8 miles and then turn left on CA-33 Street to Sperry Avenue. Turn right (west) and drive for 3.4 miles, going under the I-5 overpass. Make a right on Del Puerto Canyon Road.

DESCRIPTION:This canyon is Stanislaus County’s most diverse natural environment. Its habitats range from grasslands along the western valley floor to chaparral, blue oak woodland, and pines. Over 150 species of birds have been observed in Del Puerto Canyon. Birders from the Bay Area frequently come here looking for Yellow-breasted Chat, Costa’s Hummingbird, Greater Roadrunner, and Grasshopper Sparrow. The birds, along with interesting geology, herps, insects, and other wildlife, make this a must-see birding spot.

NEARBY FACILITIES: At the Westley exit just north of Patterson, there are a couple of hotels, several gas stations, and restaurants. At the Patterson exit on the east side of I-5, there is a hotel, two gas stations, and several fast-food restaurants. In the canyon, there are two camping facilities with restrooms about 16 miles from I-5. The first site, Frank Raines Park, has a picnic area, poorly-maintained restrooms, a softball field, and some primitive camping. One-half mile up the road from Frank Raines is Deer Creek Campground. This facility is geared for RV campers, with hookups and water at each site. They have nice restrooms with shower stalls.

SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS: For large groups, there are pull-outs at the following mile markers: 0.15, 2.6, 3.6, 10.4, 11.8, 12.3, 13.4, 16.7, 19.6 and at the top by the county signs, 21.3. The starting mile 0.0 is by the rock sign advertising Frank Raines Park, just west of the I-5 exit ramp. However, all mileages are based on the painted markers on the road, NOT on the actual mileage from the starting marker at the entrance to Del Puerto Canyon Road. For example, mile marker 3.6 is 0.6 miles past the mile 3 marker. These markers may not work in the reverse direction, as the “mile” markers on the road are anywhere from 0.8 to 1.2 miles apart.

Birders should always pull over while scanning for birds, since the traffic, though infrequent, can come up suddenly from around curves. Most of the canyon is private property, so do not go over fences. Care should be taken all along the canyon for rattlesnakes, ticks, and scorpions, which occur regularly and more frequently in warmer weather.

HABITATS: Grasslands – From the beginning of the canyon between mile markers 0.0 and 3.4, there are rolling grassland hills. Gradually, blue oaks begin to make their appearance, and will gradually thicken to form expansive woodlands on the shadier side of the canyon. On the drier, south-facing slopes, chaparral vegetation takes over.

Riparian – Fremont cottonwoods and willows make up the dominant vegetation all the way up the canyon along the streambed. The cottonwoods eventually fade out at the campgrounds. Where cattle have access to the streambed, few young trees can be found.

Woodlands – Moving upslope from the stream, depending on the soil conditions, elderberry, buck brush, tree tobacco, bush monkey flower, Indian paintbrush, and yerba santa often fill in the spaces in between the oak trees. In the shadier spots, California buckeye become numerous, while on the drier slopes, Western juniper and gray pine appear. On the driest slopes, chamise and yerba santa make up the dominant vegetation in the chaparral habitat.

Chaparral – Starting at mile 3.0 on the north side of the canyon, the hottest and driest conditions, chamise, Yerba Santa, bush monkey flower, happlopappus, and the occasional blue oak and gray pine form thick, impenetrable stands of scrubby vegetation. This chaparral occurs all the way up to mile 20.7, where stands of manzanita take over.

BIRDING: Between mile 0.15 and 2.0, check for Blue Grosbeaks and Burrowing Owl in the summer. Grasshopper Sparrows have been seen or heard singing in the spring less frequently, possibly because the orchard plantings in the grasslands have reduced this sparrow’s habitat. Golden Eagle can usually be seen soaring overhead. The occasional Merlin can be seen here in winter, as well as flocks of Mountain Bluebird.

There is a small canyon at marker 3.0 with tree tobacco on the south side of the road. This is often a reliable location for Costa’s Hummingbird in the summer. Tree tobacco occurs from this spot all along the canyon, but is thickest between markers 3.4 and 6.0. These spots are the best for Costa’a Hummingbird, although this species may be found all the way to marker 13. The trees on the hill are good for nesting Bullock’s Oriole.

On the north side of the road, there are some rock outcroppings that often have Rock Wrens calling. Be sure and stop to bird the area between markers 3.6 and 3.9, if there aren’t many people picnicking there. The cliff with the large holes is often called Owl Rock. Look for whitewash at the entrance of the holes, as both Great Horned and Barn Owls may be found there. Occasionally, Common Raven will be nesting there, too. Large flocks of White-throated Swift may be here during the summer. If you drive up to the canyon early enough, you may see Common Poorwill on the road or calling overhead in summer, too. Phainopepla, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, California Thrasher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Lesser Goldfinches may frequent the areas around Owl Rock.

Another specialty of the canyon is Greater Roadrunner, which may be anywhere visiting any habitat from mile 5.0 to 15.0, so as you drive up the road, be on the lookout for this bird. Common Merganser is often in the creek, as is Green Heron in the spring and summer. Lark Sparrow is fairly common, as is nesting Yellow-billed Magpie.

At marker 10.2, there is a large stand of chaparral that often has Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Between here and the pull-out at marker 10.4, be looking for Costa’s Hummingbird, Lazuli Bunting, Rock and Canyon Wrens. Prairie Falcon has been seen here more than a few times. Canyon Wren often nests at the foot of the cliff at the far bend in the creek, just upstream from where it crosses under the road. Costa’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds have nested on the cliff next to the pull-out.

For the flower admirer, the pull-out at marker 11.8 is a great spot to check during April. Just before the cattle guard, go up the steep slope on the left about 60 feet to the little knoll. Avoid walking through the middle of the knoll. There may be lots of purple owl’s-clover, goldfields, allium, evening snow, shooting stars, larkspur, and California poppy. At different spots along the next two miles, farewell-to-spring and Brewer’s clarkia are scattered along the loose shale slopes.

There is a big pull-out at mile 13.4. This is often called the Pygmy-Owl Spot because this is the most reliable location to find Northern Pygmy-Owl in the canyon, or for that matter anywhere in Stanislaus County. Early dawn is a good time for hear them calling. While you lose sleep looking for the Pygmy-Owl, listen carefully for Common Poorwill that inhabit the area. Be on the lookout for them on the road while it is still dark; they have glowing red eyes. It is best to try for Poorwill in late April or May. If you don’t get Pygmy-Owl, keep looking and listening, for it may be found anywhere further up the canyon.

If you feel particularly energetic, you can climb up the hillside on the north side, across the creek, to get into the chaparral habitat. This is a good spot for Western Screech Owl, Sage Sparrow, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The regular chaparral birds such as Wrentit and California Thrasher may be found here, too.

Frank Raines Park is the next spot to stop. This is a good place for a picnic, despite the poor restrooms. A walk along the creek or up the loop trail along the hillside could result in some interesting birds such as Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Phainopepla, Hutton’s Vireo, Hairy Woodpecker, and Wild Turkey. The best time to try for the turkeys is in April early in the morning as the toms establish their presence. Acorn Woodpeckers can be found around the picnic area commonly, as well as Western Bluebirds. In winter, a Red-breasted Sapsucker may be seen, as well as the rarer Red-breasted Nuthatch or Varied Thrush.

If you want to stop and bird around the Deer Creek Campground, you cannot park your car on the road and walk in, as was the former custom for birders. The rules about entrance have become more strictly enforced. This is a county campground, and you must pay your vehicle fee to enter. Weekdays during the off-season are the best times to bird in the campground. The campground in the summer is almost always full, and any weekend may be challenging for the birder. The noise and commotion of the off-road vehicles make it difficult to bird. If you choose to do so, the creek bed is the best place to go. In the spring and fall, there are lots of neotropical migrants coming through. This area is about as good a place as any for Lawrence’s Goldfinch in the county. Chipping Sparrow has been seen here, too. Along the creek from the Deer Creek Campground entrance to marker 16.8, listen for singing Yellow-breasted Chat between late April and June. The willows may have migrating warblers going through. This area can also be a good spot for Empidonax flycatchers in migration (rare but regular).

Another good spot for flowers is at marker 18.5. Cross the creek on the concrete bridge and walk around the hillside. There are red larkspur, poppy, shooting star, Chinese houses, and other species here. At marker 19.6, the road makes a sharp turn uphill. Pull over on the left to stop and look for Steller’s Jay, which has been known to nest here, and can be found with patience and luck. Just up the road, you may get Sage Sparrow, California Thrasher, and Wrentit. Peachtree Creek comes down here. There are many NO TRESPASSING signs posted, so be sure to obey them and bird from the road.

Around mile 21.0, pull over and look for Hairy Woodpecker. Rarely, you may find Townsend Solitaire in the winter. The last stop is at marker 21.3, which is where Stanislaus County line stops at Santa Clara County. Now all you have to do is turn around and pick up some of the birds you may have missed!

RARE AND UNCOMMON BIRDS: Del Puerto Canyon excels in the number of rare birds found here. Along the flats between marker 9.3 and 9.7, Lewis’s Woodpecker has been found. That same spot has had Band-tailed Pigeon and Pinyon Jay twice. Evening Grosbeak and Black Swift were found there within days of each other in 2008. Earlier county records discovered in the canyon include Clay-colored Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, Black-chinned Sparrow, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.