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Enjoy Magazine

Battlecreek is for the Birds

10/01/2006 09:46AM ● By Brandi Barnett
By Michael O'Brien

In a reflective moment, Robert Frost once explained a subtle – yet profound – facet of our existence …

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Often the least-traveled paths lead to the most rewards, despite humanity’s insistence that
the most traveled roads are the way to go. Although Redding is surrounded by nature and
beautiful scenery, to experience it to the fullest one must sometimes take such a road less
traveled. Doing so certainly makes all the difference.

I am a birder; also known as a bird watcher. I began this interest as a child, tracing pictures of
birds out of books and coloring them as true to form as possible for a 7-year-old. I remain
fascinated by the variety of colors and shapes and sizes. I am mesmerized by their songs and
calls. I am in love with their mystery–Where are they going?Where have they been?How
long will they sit in order for me to get a good look?

I recently took a less-traveled road in search of birds to the Battle Creek Wildlife Area, just
southeast of Redding. Established in 1983 by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, this area
features over 400 acres of wonderfully diverse habitat for more than 280 species of plant and
animal life.

On each of my many visits, I have yet to find another car in the large parking lot of this area.
Today was the same. I owned the place. I parked my car, turned off the engine, and climbed out
into the 70 degrees air. It would be over 100 degrees in 3 hours. Time to unpack my birding
tools: Veld guides, side pack, binoculars, notebook with pen, along with water, mosquito
repellent, hat and sun screen.

Before hiking into the wildlife area, I like to stop by the “Oaktree Trailhead” kiosk adjacent to the parking lot. Information on the local wildlife and purpose of the park, along with a bird list, are printed on the information boards. I compare this list to my checklist, and make some notes of birds I expect to see in the area during the season of my visit. Each season brings new birds, while some reside year round.

Scanning the pond to the west of the lot, I caught sight of a fat redwinged blackbird with its spectacular bulbous red wings puffed out as it glided in for a landing on a cattail. A pied-billed grebe scrambled into the air as I approached. Sen as if on cue, a massive great blue heron made a sortie across the pond, circled back, and landed on the far bank. That got the attention of a black phoebe that sat on the fence between the pond and the parking lot. It Wicked its tale
seemingly in delight of the sight. From here, I scanned the picnic tables near the kiosk in time to see a family of California quail searching for goodies to eat. I have often thought that walking the trail was not necessary, as so many birds are visible from the parking lot. But, I am too greedy of a birder.

From the parking lot there is only one entrance to Battle Creek Wildlife Area: over the “Mill Irrigation Ditch” bridge to the east. A channel dug in the 1850s; the mill irrigation ditch is still used today by local farmers and the wildlife area to supply water. The bridge is a bit rickety, but safe.

After crossing the bridge, I followed the trail, walking between California blackberry bushes, reaching a fork after about 50 yards. Good place to look around. Through my binoculars, I spotted a four-point mule deer to the east.He stared me down like a stud, and then slinked away into the brush like a fawn. Also to the east, I spied “Vulture Roost” – one of my favorite stops in the park. Poking up out of the dense foliage is a dead tree, or snag, that is an overnight roost to the park’s turkey vultures. In the very early morning, soon after the sun arises, each bird will face east, pointing their massive black bodies and featherless pink heads towards the sun. They seem to mock some sort of spiritual supplication, as they spread their nearly six-foot wings wide to gather up enough heat to warm their blood. They are unable to fly without repeating this daily morning ritual. The sight of 10 of these big birds in this position is quite spooky.

Next, I found some shade and scanned the treetops nearby. This morning, the upper leaves were also covered in gossamer webs, reflecting the morning sun. Clown-faced acorn woodpeckers cackled in the canopy. They spend all spring and summer finding and burying acorns in dead trees, creating food stores for winter.

At the fork, I stayed to the right, walking along a path that hugs the ditch. Boxes built to house wood duck nests dot the trees along this creek. Spring is when to see wood ducks rearing their young from these homes. These woods are also a favorite haunt of Bewick’s wren, oak titmouse, acorn woodpecker, and spotted towhee. Across the Veld looking south, I heard and then saw a gaudy yellow-breasted chat. Part of the warbler family, this bird does not really sing as much as it
announces with varied noises and chirps its presence. Its blazing golden chest and stunning white “spectacles” make it a bird not to be forgotten.

Following the trail along the ditch, I crossed over the second bridge that spans this creek. While doing so, I startled an unlikely pair of birds: Two common mergansers roosting in the thick protective branches of the trees to the south! I stopped in the shadow and watched the bizarre scene as they thrashed their wings against the underbrush making a hasty escape. Once the mergansers departed, I hung around and was rewarded by spotting western wood peewee, ash-throated Wycatcher, oak titmouse, and Anna’s hummingbird.

Roger Tory Peterson, perhaps the world’s most famous birder, once remarked that birds have
wings and they tend to use them. I have found this sage advice. I have had the most birding
success by finding somewhat discreet spots and patiently waiting for birds to come to me.
Sinking of this, I decided to remain on the bridge for a bit longer, awaiting whatever decided
to fly to me.

I was immediately rewarded as I spied dozens of tree swallows, violet-green swallows and
northern rough-winged swallows. I watched them dart through the air, catching insects on the
fly. By this time, the sky to the west was full of turkey vultures, all warmed up and catching

The trail across the bridge veers south, past a small orchard and heads toward Battle Creek.
As I reached the creek, I was nearly deafened by the calls of a pair of dueling house wrens. Tiny
birds with powerful voices, house wrens love this area of the park. I have often found them to
remain perched for long periods; chest thrown out, singing as loud as any bird in the park.

After enjoying two house wrens just yards apart from one another, I continued west, walking
between grass lands and river bank. Sis trail ends in a triple combination of wetland, oak
scrub, and river lands that provides the best opportunity to see many species of birds without
moving too far in any direction.

I decided to test the value of this habitat convergence, looking for birds endemic to each
locale. Scanning the marsh and cattails to the north, I could see and hear red-winged
blackbirds, marsh wren, killdeer, and great egret. In the grassy area to the west, I spied
American gold Finch feeding amongst the thistles. A flock of about eight tiny bushtits suddenly
appeared in some nearby trees, then just as mysteriously disappeared. A female coopers hawk,
which roosts in the tops of the valley oaks to the west, darted in, screamed at me to leave, and
pumped hard at the air to make a quick get away. She would return shortly.

I walked south to the edge of Battle Creek, into a copse of trees to check out the bank. I located a belted king fisher nearly hidden in some undercover, and a great blue heron busy hunting for  fish, ankle deep in the water. A great egret flew overhead with billowy parachute-like white wings. A few western kingbirds chased each other from the very tops of the 100 foot oaks. A western wood peewee lit and then returned to its perch, catching insects and calling out “DREE-yurr.” An acrobatic whitebreasted nuthatch hung upside down, calling out its nasal call, looking for termites in a dead tree limb hanging over the water.

An orange-crowned warbler carried on straight over my head, darting between trees. An osprey perched in a dead snag upriver. It spotted me and lit, flapping its long, narrow wings, keeping itself over the creek.

All of this activity in a matter in minutes; a sort of birding climax to the day. By now, it was already three hours since my arrival. It was also approaching 100 degrees, and it was time to retreat to the comfort of my air-conditioned car.Sere was more of the park to see, but I decided to save that for another day… a day when taking a less-traveled road assures me of an experience that makes all the difference in my continuing love affair of birding.�