Monday, March 2, 2015

Sunol Regional Wilderness: Beauty and Bounty Bring Out Birds in Bunches

White-breasted Nuthatch working branch
Anytime is a great time to visit Sunol Regional Wilderness - an all-time favorite stomping grounds. Three years have passed since my last visit, after averaging half a dozen visits yearly for 30 years. Just as well, because over these past years crews had been repairing Calaveras Dam resulting in park closures, a rebuilt bridge over Alameda Creek, and lots of serpentine and asbestos dust flying around from the demolition and reconstruction. Today, though, is postcard picturesque with perfect temperatures. (Unlike back East where they've been in a month-long deep freeze. Ah, the price we pay to live in sunny, beautiful California!)
White-breasted Nuthatch ground-feeding
I can't recall a single other Sunol outing where the idea of birding might take precedence over another agenda. Instead of the usual big miles we put in exploring the sprawling park, I would be content to just slowly stroll a mile or two up and down along Camp Ohlone Road, birding. Pretty Alameda Creek,  flowing through a jumble of blue and green andesite boulders, is the largest watershed in the South San Francisco Bay, and a Neotropical bird hot spot where up to 40 species reside, half of which I may not have seen in my life, such as Western Wood-Pewee, Western Kingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, and Bullock's Oriole.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

A recent study by EBRPD concluded that upwards of 60 variant species may be found in richer, higher elevation stretches of the creek where habitat is pristine and human activity limited. The study concludes, "Estimates are that up to 95% of Western riparian vegetation communities have been lost or degraded over the past century, and many of the bird species associated with these systems have been extirpated or have experienced severe declines." Not good. But thankfully, stewardship efforts are paying off big in countless urban back yards where riparian corridors have been disrupted, altered, compromised, or wiped out.

Sunol Backpacking Area
Today, ah, what a day of pure brilliance, of sheer unbridled joyful being, set loose in Diablo Range hill country for the 200th time . . . this time with birding heavily on my mind. But I hardly see any birds at all on Camp Ohlone Road out toward Little Yosemite Gorge. Just too many people out enjoying things, so the birds stay hidden or fly to higher ground. It's OK. The creek is running low anyway, and higher elevations beckon, where the birding is sure to be stellar. (Yes, saw several Steller's Jays!)

Gambolin' Man meets 4WheelBob
Not far along, I recognize the fellow in a wheelchair strongly propelling himself up a gently sloping grade that winds me pedaling my mountain bike. It's none other than Bob "4WheelBob" Coomber, out 'n about enjoying the immense beauty and fresh air of Sunol. I hop off my bike and say, "Hi Bob, it's Gambolin' Man!" Although we've met but once before on the trail, Bob immediately responds in kind; it feels like I've known Bob for years and been his best friend! 4WheelBob is amazing in his abilities, inspiration and determination to enjoy the great outdoors. He hikes to places most able bodied people can only dream of, including Mission Peak and Mount Diablo (no easy feat by feet), and, more incredulously, a belabored 11-hour assault up the 14,246 summit of Inyo County's White Mountain, the third tallest in California (not an everyday summit to bag).

Acorn Woodpecker
Rolling along, past Little Yosemite (barely worth a glance today), past the iconic Sycamore "W Tree" and the always fun Rock Scramble up a sharp defile of jumbled boulders, drop falls and pools, up beyond pretty rock strewn meadows and sylvan gardens to ascend a steep stretch for open views of the big Diablo Range. Then up Backpacker Road to drop our bikes and cross over the fenced area into the ecologically sensitive Sunol Backpack Area - a long-time favorite place especially prized for remote views and rolling hill beauty. Today, though, it looks like a bird's paradise. We hike up the steep path with a thick stand of gully brush to the left and wide open views of Sunol valley, eventually huffing and puffing our way to the top of the hill.

The gigantic knoll hosts five camps, all unoccupied. At Hawk's Nest, the views are all-encompassing and heady. We kick back in the presence of a totemic boulder and a rotted old tree trunk bullet hole riddled with old acorn caches.

Beautiful Sunol Scenery
We lounge around in a sunny patch of grass for a couple of hours, ticks be damned, enjoying the solitude, clean air, views and lively bird activity. Several different birds are busy working the branches and patrolling the ground - territorial Acorn Woodpeckers, a lone Western Bluebird, a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two or three White-breasted Nuthatches ground-foraging and feeding along branches. Watching the animated little avian hop along the ground is an unexpected sight. I almost don't recognize the bird because I've only observed White-breasted Nuthatches high in the trees.

Sycamore-lined Alameda Creek
I expend my remaining energy reserves hiking up to Eagle's Eyrie, and then to Sky Camp, perched on the edge of a small tor with a stunning overlook of expansive green rolling hills. A Red-tailed Hawk circles above, joined by a mate and disappearing over a ridge. It's an amazing place up here.

Eventually, with the day waning, it's time to pick ourselves up and head back to the staging area, of course taking twice as long to return owing to stops here and there to investigate pretty areas of the floodplain and creek, and, as always, delayed endlessly by birds, birds and more birds.

Video Bonus Coverage of White-breasted Nuthatch foraging on ground:

Read more about 4WheelBob @

Read more about Sunol Regional Wilderness at @

Check out complete Flickr album of this adventure @


  1. Cool blog as usual. Thanks Tom!

  2. Awesome! Sunol is a wonderful park, so rich with wildlife and now wildflowers too. Thank you for posting!

  3. Fantastico!!! Would love to do the bike ride out there with you sometime. KUDOS GRANDOTES to 4WBob!!!1

  4. What a beautiful day it was. Wonderful account of a day well spent in Sunol.