Like many Northern California birders, I don’t let winter pass without making an overnight trip south to San Benito County so I can spend a full day birding in the Panoche Valley. Panoche Valley Road takes the birder eastward through the inner coastal mountains and out onto the flat, dry plains on the other side, passing through many unspoiled habitats. Wintering raptors and other open-country specialties abound, including Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, California Thrasher, Yellow-billed Magpie, Phainopepla, and Greater Roadrunner.
The route reliably produces a number of unusual and interesting species as well as a surprise or two. Last winter, after encountering a Rough-legged Hawk, Western Bluebirds, and Yellow-billed Magpies in the oak savannah, my companions and I stopped to check stony cliffs for Canyon Wren. The wren was not to be found, but several Lark Sparrows sang from a grove of cottonwoods. Then, much to our amazement, we saw a Great Horned Owl hunkered down on a ledge under a rocky overhang, apparently on a nest. I had read about Great Horned Owls nesting on cliffs but had not seen the behavior before. — Carolyn Longstreth
Carolyn Longstreth is a Bay Area birder and outdoors enthusiast who writes about birds and the environment.