On Saturday, December 5, I was doubly lucky: clear weather and a lottery win. In a California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) lottery, I had won two permits for entry into Bobcat Ranch, a 6,800-acre property Audubon acquired in 2007. Although it rained the day before and the day after, our entry day was clear. Bobcat Ranch is located in Solano County, about seven miles west of Winters on Highway 128. This working ranch includes blue oak woodlands, annual wetlands, chaparral, and grasslands where cattle share space with preservation-oriented research and restoration projects. The area's blue oaks function as hotels for migratory birds.
Only five people were given two permits each for birding on one of only five different days during the fall of 2015 as part of CDFW's Shared Habitat Alliance for Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) program. Besides opening the ranch for birding, the SHARE program issues permits (yes, on days different from birding days) for the hunting of non-native turkeys. A new Bobcat Ranch lottery for 2016 spring dates has been posted on the SHARE website. With recent rains, spring wildflowers should be abundant this year.
Since I consider myself a novice birder, I was lucky to meet and hike with two ace birders from the Bay Area: photographer Sarah Barsness, who posted a list of the 32 species we identified on eBird.com, and Juan-Carlos Solis, who can identify birds as quick as a flash based on their calls. As we hiked a couple of miles up Bray Canyon, we saw no owls, reputed to be abundant there, but we did see quail, a cormorant, an osprey, a northern harrier, mourning doves, five kinds of woodpeckers, two kinds of phoebe, numerous sparrows and finches, a kestrel, and a large flock of pine siskin, to name just a few.
The presence of numerous California newts prompted Juan-Carlos to tell us how toxic they are when ingested, especially for birds. He once found a dead grebe shortly after seeing it alive, and asked the California Academy of Sciences to examine it. He later learned that the grebe had died from a tasty but poisonous meal of California newt.
After leaving Bobcat Ranch, two of us crossed Highway 128 to walk along Putah Creek, which runs year-round from Lake Berryessa into Lake Solano. There we saw a gorgeous and very healthy looking bobcat, who had come down to the creek for a drink of water. A short drive back toward Winters took us to Lake Solano, where we saw numerous migratory waterfowl, including herons, egrets, wood ducks, the common goldeneye, buffleheads, shovelers, and many kinds of ducks and geese. We were amused by what appeared to be a territorial fight in a large oak tree between two steller's jays and two squirrels (the squirrels lost). Several very tame peacocks, both gorgeous males and the more drab females, wandered around the lake's picnic area.
Another trip up Highway 128 is warranted because two other sites promise good birding: Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a University of California reserve twelve miles west of Winters, closed last fall due to a 2015 fire but scheduled to reopen in May 2016; and Monticello Dam on Lake Berryessa, one mile west of Stebbins Cold Canyon. Winters is also a fun stop, with several fruit stands, a large brewery that has live music on weekend evenings, several wineries, and a restored old-time downtown.
The new 350,000-acre Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, created last summer by President Obama, stretches from Putah Creek below Lake Berryessa in Solano County through Napa, Lake, Mendocino, and Yolo counties. Included are the popular river-rafting Cache Creek to the south and Snow Mountain to the north. Locals have long known what a treasure they have, and since 2005 hikers have been going to the 80-foot-high Zim Zim Falls in the Knoxville Ranch State Wildlife Area, now part of the new national monument. Lots of potential here for hiking and even more birding.
Spring 2016 Birding Dates (Lottery Application Deadlines)
March 31 (March 13), April 2 (March 15), April 21 (April 3), May 5 (April 17), May 7 (April 19), May 12 (April 24)
For more information please visit the following sites
Audubon's Bobcat Ranch, http://ca.audubon.org/about-us/bobcat-ranch
California Department of Fish and Wildlife SHARE Birding Lottery, https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/hunting/share
Altacal Audubon Society, http://www.altacal.org/