Fall into Butte County Birds
Butte County is extraordinarily rich in bird diversity, with over 300 resident and migratory species. While each season has its highlights, fall is my favorite time for birds. As the days get shorter, summer starts to lose some of its hostility, the nights cool, and the leaves start to change. Old bird friends that have been gone all summer are back in town, migrating downslope from their mountain breeding habitats. As leaves drop, birds become easier to see in their lofty perches.
Butte County Birding Habitats
The diversity of birds in Butte County is partly due to the great range of elevation, from 60 feet above sea level in the Sacramento Valley bottomlands to over 7,000 feet in the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas. The foothills have been sculpted for thousands of years by rivers and creeks into deep canyons, widening at their bases and lined with rich riparian vegetation. The riparian ecosystem is the richest inland ecosystem in California: the wealth of plant species creates a wealth of food for insects and birds who thrive off the plants and insects.
Is it October already and summer just won’t give up? Head up to the higher elevations of Colby Meadows, about an hour’s drive from Chico just past Butte Meadows. The West Branch of Butte Creek there is lined with black oaks, big-leaf maples, and dogwoods turning vibrant reds and yellows. Stop at stream crossings to marvel at the umbrella plants, with their two-foot diameter leaves, adding splashes of color to the stream in the fall. Look up and down the creek in rushing water for a small brown bird doing squats, the American dipper, and you might be lucky enough to see it dip under water to catch aquatic insects or fish eggs.
As you cross Colby Creek, you will come upon the Colby Meadows/Jonesville Snow Park at around 5,000 feet. Follow the sound of running water to the trail and the meadow, where the black cottonwoods can be a brilliant yellow (Who knew death could be so beautiful?). The cottonwoods are close cousins of the famous quaking aspens, and there is a small patch of these here also, a rarity at this low an elevation. There is an easy trail (logging road) through the conifers 1.5 miles to the Chico State Adventure Outings Yurt (which is available for rental). Some of the birds here will stay through the harsh winter, while others will be moving down below the snowline soon. Birds you can see here are the inquisitive mountain chickadees, raucous Steller’s jays, red-breasted nuthatches, elegant evening grosbeaks, mountain quail, and the dashing white-headed woodpeckers.
Upper Bidwell Park
Butte County is where the valley meets the mountains, and nowhere is this more dramatic than in the city of Chico’s crown jewel, Bidwell Park. In Upper Bidwell Park, more than 160 species of birds have been recorded, and the Yahi Trail along Big Chico Creek particularly dazzles.
Starting just downhill from the parking lot at Horseshoe Lake, the Yahi Trail is four-miles long one way, but rewards much shorter hikes as well. Big Chico Creek, which originates from a spring around Butte Meadows and flows to the Sacramento River, is a major thoroughfare for the downslope fall bird migration. If you’re lucky, you can get a glimpse of a migrating western tanager or black-throated gray warbler on its way to Central America for the winter.
Aside from the famous year round residents like the acorn woodpeckers and oak titmouse, in fall we welcome back our “snowbirds” who are migrating toward more available food and water sources: white and golden-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, the tiny hyperactive ruby-crowned kinglets with their distinctive eye rings and mostly hidden red crest, brilliant western bluebirds, secretive hermit thrushes, impeccably coiffed cedar waxwings, and yellow-rumped warblers, the least shy of the warblers.
At about mile two of the trail, you get to Bear Hole (another parking option most days). The sheer basalt cliffs of Iron Canyon offer some spectacular scenery here, and you can see Turkey Vultures soaring at eye level and the occasional flock of turkeys gliding across the canyon. Fall colors start with the spectacular poison oak, which starts to turn in late summer in dry spots, an example of a drought-deciduous plant. Although our native California plants are not well known for their fall color, California grapes and western redbud can definitely add a bit of ambiance to autumn ambling.
Chico Seed Orchard
One of the best autumn scenes in Chico is at the end of Cramer Lane south of the Skyway. The street is lined with Chinese pistachios, popular street and yard trees for their fall colors. This is the entrance to the Mendocino National Forest Genetic Resource and Conservation Center, mercifully renamed the Chico Seed Orchard, where you can see a great variety of exotic trees, some of which were introduced in the US from this location (such as the Chinese pistachio). It is also something of a birding hotspot. The center started as a research facility for experimental introductions. It was here that kiwis and edible pistachios were first introduced to the US. Now the center mainly grows conifer seeds for wildfire recovery and watershed restoration.
Perhaps because of the odd mix of trees, the birding here can be quite productive, and rarities tend to show up here. Red crossbills took up an extended residence a few years ago. In September 2020, there was a summer tanager here and a long-eared owl made a brief appearance just outside the gates in October 2020. A mile-long accessible paved trail follows Comanche Creek/Edgar Slough, a diversion of Butte Creek, and runs past tree bamboo and a variety of labeled exotic and native trees. The birdlife here is similar to Bidwell Park. Other common sights are: one of the largest congregations of robins in Chico, brown creepers, golden crowned kinglets, and varied thrushes. The center has regular visitor hours and a locking gate.