BIRDING SAN BENITO COUNTY
by Kent Van Vuren
Like so many of the inland California counties, San Benito County is at its best as a birding county when there is plenty of water. During the drought years of the 1980's, it was very difficult to find geese and many other water birds. Fortunately in the past few years there has been plenty of water. Below I list some of my favorite birding spots in the county, starting from the north and heading south.
SAN FELIPE LAKE
This lake is located on hwy 152 and is east of Gilroy. The best place to park is a small pull out where the emergency phone box is. If the lake is flooded, you can also get good views from two pullouts further along hwy 152 to the east. The lake is a good location in the county to find rare gulls, terns, geese, ducks, egrets, herons (especially Black-crowned Night Heron), White Pelicans, and sometimes shorebirds. There have been some good sightings here over the years including: Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Eurasian Widgeon, Least Tern, Glaucous Gull and Thayer's Gull. It is always worthwhile checking the lake during any month though it is at its best in the winter.
FRAZER LAKE RD./SAN FELIPE RD./SHORE RD.
These roads and others in the area are worth birding especially the fall to the spring. On Frazer Lake Rd. I have had Mountain Plover, Whimbrel, and in some years hundreds of Gulls. Also in this northern part of the county (north of Hollister) is the best place to look for American Bittern, Tricolored Blackbird, Burrowing Owl (there is a colony along Shore Rd), & Short-eared Owl (dusk).
HOLLISTER SEWAGE PONDS
These are located on hwy 156 one mile before the hwy. crosses the San Benito River. Always check in with the staff before birding this facility. These are privately owned ponds and the owner is not a friendly type. In the past this has been my favorite birding spot in the county and I probably have more first county records from this spot than any area in the county. Unfortunately, they have changed the habitat and it is no longer the wonderful place it used to be. I still think it is worth checking as such great birds as Sabine's Gull, Little Gull, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Palm Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, & Barrow's Goldeneye have been found here. It is one of the more reliable Spots for Sanderling & Cassin's Kingbird. Across from the new highway from the facility, are some new overflow ponds. These can be really good when there are appropriate water levels. The ponds are closed on the weekend.
HOLLISTER INDUSTRIAL PONDS
These are located just beyond where hwy. 156 crosses the San Benito River. The best of the ponds can be easily birded from the road. Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Red-breasted Merganser have been found here. In the fall & the spring it can be quite good for water birds. It can be difficult to access this facility & it is usually closed on the weekend.
SAN JUSTO RESERVOIR
This site is located off of Union Rd. (which comes off of hwy 156). It is worth checking for loons and grebes and the occasional Osprey. As you drive up to the reservoir you will probably see the Teleydine pond to the west. You can scope it from this spot but access to this site is completely impossible to obtain. It is a top secret bomb testing facility.
This site is on Anzar Rd. which is west of hwy 129 in the northwestern part of the county. This pond is a reliable spot in the winter for Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck & Common Moorhen.
This area is just south of the town of Paicines on hwy 25. For the best birding potential drive south on Cienega Rd. Along this road have been found Lewis's Woodpecker, Wild Turkey, and Blue Grosbeak. This was probably the late Bob Merril's favorite Birding road in the county. Paicines Res. can have lots of birds depending on the water Level. In some years it is completely dry. When it is half full it can be decent for shorebirds. When it is full it can be good for loons, ducks, Bald Eagles (winter) and is the best spot in the county for Common Merganser. Surprises can show up so keep your eyes open. At this spot has also been found, Red Phalarope, Least Tern, Black Tern, Blue Grosbeak, Cassin's Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, and Roadrunner.
This is undoubtedly the most birded spot in the county. As you drive over Panoche Rd. look for Phainopeplas, Roadrunners, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Lewis's Woodpeckers. When I bird the valley itself, I try to go down every road I can. In the summer the area is too hot and dry and I have never had luck at that time of the year, however, the rest of the year it is a must for working on your San Benito County list.
The Mountain Plovers are getting harder to find every year and can best be found in fields of short grass. Some of the annual goodies to look for are, Mountain Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Burrowing Owl, Vesper Sparrow and Horned Lark (very common). Some of the better birds that have shown up in the last few years include, Lark Bunting, Sage Thrasher, Longspurs, Northern Shrike, and Black-throated Sparrow.
SAN BENITO MOUNTAIN
The best way to reach this area is by taking the New Idria Rd. As you start the road you pass by the Griswold Hills to your east. Several of the canyons here are good for Chukar and nesting Costa's Hummingbird. I would definitely check the condition of the road from New Idria up to San Benito Mtn. In the best conditions you need a truck or 4-wheel drive vehicle. Sometimes the road is closed. The best areas to bird are when you hit the Jeffrey Pines until you hit the Fresno County line. This is Mexican Lake Rd. I also recommend driving or walking to the top of San Benito Mtn. Itself. In the appropriate habitats you should be able to find Pygmy Nuthatch, Dusky Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Band-tailed Pigeon, Black-chinned Sparrow, Poorwill and Mountain Quail. Some days, especially in the fall, you can really hit the jackpot. Some of the special birds that have been seen here include, Black Swift, Clark's Nutcracker, Cassin's Finch, Townsend's Solitaire, Mountain Chickadee and Williamson's Sapsucker. If you bird this area in the spring, I strongly recommend you start early as it can get rather hot up here.
PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT
This area is located off of hwy 25. I have found the best birding here to be in the spring. In the summer it is too hot for me. This is a great place to pick up Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Prairie Falcon, and White-throated Swift. Good birds have been found at both sides of the park but I usually bird the east side. Chalone creek is good for landbirds and has had nesting Chats. Long-eared Owls have also been heard in the park especially in the winter & spring.
This road is located in the southern part of the county. Just before the road crosses the county line, there is a small marsh where the river bends. This is a good spot for Common Yellowthroat and Lesser Nighthawks breed on the gravel. North of this location at the intersection of Hwy 25 and the King City rd. there is sometimes a lake we call Bitterwater Lake. This is always worth checking for water birds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds have shown up here.
If anyone has any interesting sightings please contact me as soon as possible at:
Kent Van Vuren (831) 663-4086 or email firstname.lastname@example.org