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McClellan Park | Almaden Lake Park | Grant Ranch County Park

McClellan Park

Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (SCVAS) has its headquarters and nature shop in the historic old ranch house at the park entrance. Bordered by the meandering Stevens Creek, the 23.5-acre park is managed to preserve a natural character, although it also accommodates Cupertino's organic community garden and 4H Club facilities. For its relatively small size, McClellan Ranch yields a surprisingly large variety of birds in the spring and is a popular stop for Birdathon teams.

Take I-280 to the Foothill Blvd. exit in Cupertino. Go south (toward the hills) on Foothill Blvd. Several short blocks past Stevens Creek Blvd., turn left on McClellan Rd. Follow McClellan Rd. briefly through a residential area, after which it winds down into the creek bottom. McClellan Ranch Preserve is on the left just past the bridge over Stevens Creek.

Stevens Creek, with its mature riparian habitat of sycamore, buckeye, walnut and coast live oak, borders the park on the west and north. The large central field has non-native wild radish that is managed by the City of Cupertino to reduce the danger of fire during the dry season. SCVAS has planted California natives near the ranch house. The community garden, with its fruit and vegetable plantings, attracts some of the birds in the park.

How to Bird the Area
An excellent loop trail leaves from the comer of the parking lot nearest Stevens Creek. It follows closely downstream along the creek, skirting the edge of the park and cutting back through the community garden. The trail offers numbered interpretive signs that identify trees and plants along the way. Maps are available in the SCVAS office. If you go through the garden make sure you close the gates behind you.

A walk on the loop trail should produce many of the species resident throughout the year. These include Red-shouldered Hawk, Anna's Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher (often heard rattling its way up and down the creek), Acorn, Nuttall's, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Black Phoebe, Steller's Jay, Bushtit, Spotted and California Towhees, Song Sparrow, and Lesser Goldfinch, Barn Owls were resident in the park prior to 1998, but have not returned since their roosting/nesting site was subject to renovation by the City. They may occasionally roost in the barn. Look for Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk overhead.

This beautiful riparian habitat provides nesting for many species in spring including Olive-sided Flycatcher (occasional), Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope and Ash-throated (occasional) Flycatchers, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, and Bullock's Oriole. Hooded Orioles nest in fan palms in the park and in the nearby neighborhood. Listen for the flight call note, a single, clear, rising "wheet." Other species found along the creek in spring include Wilson's Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak and Purple Finch.

Of special interest in the park are nest boxes built and maintained by SCVAS volunteers. The boxes have been placed in the middle of the field and at various spots along the trail. Western Bluebirds and Violet-green Swallows use these boxes. Other boxes around the park and along the creek are used by Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch and Bewick's Wren.

In winter Red-breasted Sapsucker and Northern (Red-Shafted) Flicker are present, making it possible to see six woodpecker species in one day. Other winter species include Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, California Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. This is a good time for sparrows, particularly around the community garden area. Occasional Fox, Lincoln's and White-throated Sparrows are spotted. White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Junco abound.

The loop trail along the creek and through the community garden returns to the ranch house complex. Be sure to check the feeders outside the SCVAS office and nature shop for some easy sightings. In spring the orioles coming to the feeders are a real treat. Don't forget to stop in at the SCVAS office to check out the Audubon Nature Shop and to say hello.

— Leda Beth Gray

Almaden Lake Park and Los Alamitos Creek Trail

Years ago Almaden Lake (not to be confused with Almaden Reservoir) was the site of a rock quarry. Excavation of the quarry produced craters, and their expansion led to the creation of a lake. Today that lake is a magnet for bird life, and what was once a scar on the landscape has become a pleasant park, complete with picnic grounds, manicured lawns, and even a public swimming beach.

Almaden Lake Park is located in south San Jose at the north end of the Almaden Valley. Take Hwy. 85 to Almaden Expwy., go south and the park will be on your left, just past Coleman Rd. Drive past the park and double back at the first opportunity to enter the west parking area. Alternatively, to get to the east parking area, turn left at Coleman, and then right at the next intersection (Winfield Blvd.). Entry is free except on summer weekends.

How to Bird the Area
One of the most interesting spots is where Los Alamitos Creek empties into Almaden Lake. Common Mergansers like to loaf on the rocks below the footbridge, and there is often a Green Heron or Common Moorhen lurking in the vicinity. Here, and upstream along the creek, watch for introduced Nutmeg Mannikins (aka Spice Finch or Spotted Munia). This goldfinch-sized bird can be identified by its black bill and brown upperparts. Adults also show black scalloping on their breasts.

Searching trees within the park may reveal Red-shouldered Hawk at any season, Red-breasted Sapsucker in winter and Bullock’s Oriole in spring and summer. The area between the footbridge and park office is good for birds of oak woodland. Look for the resident Acorn Woodpeckers. Check the budding oaks for warblers in spring.

The lake itself is host to wintering grebes, geese and ducks. Occasionally there is a Common Loon; rarer visitors have included Pacific Loon, Red-necked Grebe and Ross’s Goose. Winter storms can produce unusual inland sightings of saltwater species such as Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and Western Gull. Even when there are no oddities around, Canada Geese and Common Mergansers are almost always present (both breed locally). The goose population has increased dramatically in recent years. Flocks move around, but frequently return to graze the lawns of the park. Broods of yellow goslings follow the adults in spring and summer.

In winter large numbers of gulls raft on the lake and rest on the gravel bar near the inflow. Ring-billed, California, Herring and Thayer’s are the more common species (this an excellent place to study Thayer’s), but a few Mew and Glaucous-winged are also to be expected, and Glaucous has been recorded occasionally. The gulls are commuters and visit the lake en route to and from feeding areas. Numbers vary from day to day and hour to hour: the best time to study them is usually late morning and early afternoon, when thousands may be present. By late afternoon they are gone.

The majority of the gulls depart in spring, but a few Ring-billed and California Gulls remain, and during the warmer months share the lake with Caspian and Forster’s Terns. The large vegetated island in the middle of the lake serves as a communal roost for several species of wading birds, and is a nesting site for Great and Snowy Egrets, Green Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Check the island’s bare strip of land for Spotted Sandpiper and other shorebirds in winter. Recently a few Great-tailed Grackles have been seen around the islands, with nesting suspected in the summer of 2000.

The park is a starting point for Los Alamitos Creek Trail. Although hemmed in by roads and suburbs, the trail provides access to some fine riparian habitat. Bird life is varied and plentiful, especially in spring. The area along the creek is also home to many other creatures—deer, muskrat, squirrel and even coyote have found refuge in this urban wildlife corridor. The trail is an easy walk over level terrain, and for most of its length it closely parallels the creek. Wherever there is a view of the water, Great Blue Heron, Great and Snowy Egrets, Green Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron, Mallard (watch for broods of cute ducklings in spring and summer), and Common Merganser are all possible.

Listen for the Red-shouldered Hawk’s insistent shrieking while following the creek upstream. A flash of blue and a rattling call announces the sudden appearance of a Belted Kingfisher. You probably won’t get very far without noticing a Black Phoebe or two flycatching from streamside perches. The trail passes under a bridge, beyond which the creek and trail soon diverge, separated by an overflow channel (normally dry). Killdeer like the gravel beds, but otherwise there is little of interest along this stretch. Where the creek rejoins the trail, look for Western Kingbird and orioles in spring and summer. Chances of seeing Hooded Oriole improve by scanning the palms across the creek: Bullock’s Oriole is usually easy to find among the oaks and sycamores.

Watch for several species of swallows (including Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged) over the water in spring and summer. Among them you might spot a few Vaux’s Swifts from the local breeding population; larger numbers pass through as migrants in spring and fall. The path skirts other habitats, including chaparral and oak savanna. In spring listen for the songs of resident California Thrasher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow coming from the brushy hillsides. Both species can be elusive and hard to spot. Look for American Kestrel and Acorn Woodpecker perched atop gnarled oak snags. Continuing south you will eventually reach a wooded picnic area. This is an excellent place for woodpeckers year-round, and for migrant songbirds (especially warblers) in spring and fall. In winter look for neatly-patterned Lincoln’s Sparrow in weeds and brush near the water. Fox, Song, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows also skulk in the vegetation.

Proceeding down the path you will cross a wooden footbridge to a trail parking area on Camden Ave. near Graystone Ln. about 1.5 miles from the lake. The trail continues along the creek to the Camden Ave. crossing and beyond for those with the time and stamina. A path paralleling the Arroyo Calero (a stream confluent with Los Alamitos Creek) begins at the Camden Ave. bridge and offers access to more riparian habitat. This trail system eventually connects to Santa Teresa County Park.

Woodland birds found along the trail year-round include California Quail, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Western Scrub-Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Bewick’s Wren, and Spotted Towhee. In more open areas watch for such “suburban” birds as Mourning Dove, Northern Mockingbird, House Finch and Lesser Goldfinch.

Winter brings Red-breasted Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Spring is an exciting time, when the resident species are joined by neotropical migrants. Some stay to nest—Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, and Black-headed Grosbeak. During fall migration it’s worth checking the riparian corridor for migrant passerines. Rarities are possible, and Western Tanagers frequent fruiting elderberry bushes in August and September.

— John Mariani

Grant Ranch County Park

This trip takes you birding high above San Jose in the Diablo range, from the Joseph D. Grant Ranch County Park to the far northeast corner of Santa Clara County-approximately 75 miles round trip from I-680 on very curvy roads. Or, instead of returning, one can continue down through Del Puerto Canyon in Stanislaus County to I-5 (approx. 140 miles round trip), or continue northward on Mines Rd. in Alameda County to the Livermore area (approx. 100 miles). This write-up covers Grant Ranch visitor center and campgrounds. There are restrooms at Grant Ranch.

From San Jose take Alum Rock Ave. east from either I-680 or Hwy. 101 for about 3 miles to Mt. Hamilton Rd. (Hwy. 130). Turn right (south) and proceed about 7.5 miles to the Grant Ranch entrance booth on the right, just past the Qyimby Rd. intersection. Alternatively, take Quimby Rd. from either Tully Rd. or Capitol Expwy. for a shorter but steeper drive to the park. Once past the entrance station (fee required; trail maps covering the first tour sites mentioned here are available), bear left at the first fork and park anywhere alongside the creek.

Grant Ranch
Remember to bird diligently the open areas to the west of the asphalt parking lots before starting out; it is all too easy to overlook Killdeer, Say's Phoebe (winter), Yellow-billed Magpie, Western Bluebird, California Thrasher, and Chipping (summer), Lark, crowned (winter), and other ground-dwelling sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, and Lesser and American Goldfinches in your haste to bird the oak trees along the stream bed. In winter Hermit Thrush is often seen and heard in the creek underbrush. A short distance along the stream to the east is a path leading toward the Ranch House. This path passes near a water tank and small pond which usually attracts a number of small species that can be "pished" out. California Quail and Yellow-billed Magpie are often heard.

The Ranch House is actually a visitor center, and it is important to bird closely all sides of this building. Around the back are small apple trees that have attracted rare migrants, notably Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Summer Tanager. The tall oaks above the building are frequently a good spot for Red-breasted Sapsucker (winter), as well as the more familiar Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper. The tall pines can have kinglets (winter), Cedar Waxwing (winter), Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and goldfinches working quietly in the upper reaches. Bam and Great Horned Owls have been known to fly close to the amateur astronomers who set up at sunset just west of the building.

A short loop trail just south of the Ranch House is well worth walking. Longer trails also head south from there, one running near the main road leading to the campgrounds and, eventually, the Snell barn where Barn Owls have been seen. Another trail (Hotel Trail) runs more closely parallel to Mt. Hamilton Rd. Off-season these trails may be more for exercise than birding, but in breeding season these can be profitable areas to look for California Quail, vireos, wrens, warblers, towhees, grosbeaks, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping and other sparrows, and goldfinches. One year a colony of Lewis's Woodpeckers nested along Hotel Trail just after it crosses the first ridgeline.

— Frank Vanslager