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birding Yolo County through the year

Finding birds in Yolo County requires not only knowledge of where to go to find them, but when to go. Many of the best locations are completely dead during parts of the year. Knowing the cycles of the birds and when to go where not only helps me find birds, but it also gives me a feel for the year, like I'm part of a larger world revolving around the sun. I feel more "in touch" with the world, if you will. Below I outline my personal plan for how I typically bird Yolo County.
Lawrence's Goldfinch. These guys are rare but regular in spring and summer up Capay Valley or Rayhouse Rd, or even in the fall in Capay orchards. It's best to listen for their "tink--too" call. Photo by Don DesJardin, copyright, 1999.

mid-April - early June
Spring migration! It's not as filled with vagrant potential as fall, but the birds are in their best dress and thus easy to identify. This time of year you'll find me scanning the Valley floor for shorebirds (Yolo Wildlife Area is often best now, but the Trestle Ponds could be excellent as well), and checking any riparian or wooded habitat for warblers, flycatchers, and other migrants. While most birders would put Rayhouse Road on the top of their list for passerine migrants, I've had just as good (or better) mornings with warblers in Valley Oaks on the Valley floor (e.g., along Willowbank Ditch in S. Davis). If you know how to identify these trees, you'll find the birds. This May, I'll also be canvassing marshes at dawn in search of Least Bitterns and possibly heading to Berryessa Dam for a Black Swift (if I'm lucky). Migrant songbirds are especially worth looking for after a rainy/stormy night.

mid-June - early July
This is often thought to be a dead time in Yolo County; the doldrums between spring and fall migration when all that's here is whatever breeding birds we have. My primary activity during this period is to look for Yellow-billed Cuckoos migrating north along the Sacramento River. There's less than 100 left up the Valley, but they must pass by us each year. I've found one so far-- at the Cache Creek Settling Basin. This is also a good time to head up Rayhouse Rd to explore the specialties that nest up there. I enjoy checking water bodies and riparian areas on the Valley floor in June, hoping for a surprise, or at least enjoying all the Blue Grosbeaks.

mid-July - August
Fall shorebird migration is in full swing in mid to late summer, and that's pretty much all I focus on here. The key is to find the location with the best water levels and the most birds and to check it as often as possible. The Davis Wetlands is often managed for shorebird habitat. Songbird migration begins to pick up in late August; see below.

September - October
I suppose most birders would say these are the best birding months of the year, and who could argue? Lots of birds, with immatures all around, most species in migration, birds dispersing everywhere, and rare vagrants expected any time, any place. If you're not running off to Pt Reyes, you can continue focussing on shorebirds (see above), but also focus on songbirds. Just about any location is worth checking in the fall, but good riparian areas on the Valley floor are typically excellent, and even a nice weedy field like the Solano Park gardens offers a fine morning of birding. Putah Creek should also not be ignored.

November - early April
Winter. For me, that means gulls, which get me through the dark times. For most others, this is the time to focus on sparrows, irruptive passerines, raptors, and waterfowl. I check water bodies (Davis Wetlands, Yolo Wildlife Area) regularly. Any woodsy location could be interesting for songbirds, though I prefer spots on the Valley floor (like Grays Bend). If the Yolo Bypass floods, Rd 155 could be exciting. Winter does bring lots of birds, and they are typically resident for many months, allowing time to methodically canvas the county, whether it be searching for sapsuckers and Lewis' Woodpeckers in Capay Valley, longspurs and Mountain Plovers in the north, rare ducks and mountain birds along Putah Creek, or waterfowl on the Valley floor. By February, the birds start to thin out, perhaps because juvenile mortality rates are taking their toll. But February is the best time to focus on gulls, many of which seem to leave the coast and come thru Yolo County. By March, I focus on my garden and watch the newly-arrived Swainson's Hawks tumble overhead... and wait for late April.