The Millville Plains
● By Brandi Barnett
Field DayDecember 2006
By Michael O'Brien
So, where shall we go today? The possibilities quicken the spirit. When birding in the
North State, choosing a place to go is like making one choice from a chocolate dessert buffet.
However, choose we must.
Before we go, I have decided to take a departure from the hikes we have been taking. Today
we bird by car. How can we see birds from the car, you may ask? Well, we stop frequently and
either watch from an open window, or stand next to the vehicle. Autos make wonderful blinds
because they do not frighten birds as much as do humans. In addition, we cover more ground,
so the pace is quickened. And we don’t get so sunburned or drenched, depending on the season!
Today, we are headed for the Great Plains… of Redding. Just east of town off Highway 44, lie the Millville Plains. It is a piece of landscape that resembles the grasslands of Kansas, with rolling hills, endless blue sky, and even a windmill or two.
Named after the nearby town of Millville, this environment supports an ecosystem germane to the Midwestern plains. As I turned south off Highway 44 East onto Millville Plains Road, I see golden hills and a scattering of oaks. I parked near a cattle gate, stepped out of the car and heard the “zzzzeeet!” of savannah sparrows, and the flute-like calls of western meadowlarks. Meadowlarks are a type of blackbird, but their neon yellow breasts dominate their appearance.
Looming over this landscape are power lines and the huge steel towers that carry them. Scanningeach tower top, I spotted a red-tailed hawk, peering down from its throne on high, head bobbingside to side. The raptor took about 4 seconds to decide that 300 feet up was too close to me. It lit from its perch, took three powerful flaps of its wings, and sailed to the next tower.
Back in my car, I drove to the top of the first hill and pulled into the PCR corral driveway. Birding was my goal today, but I became immediately distracted by the big sky view available from this spot. A breathtaking panorama begins with Mt. Lassen and the Sierras to the east. Mt Shasta and the Cascades poke up to the north. Shasta Bally and greater Redding spread out to the west. To the south is the open space of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
As I enjoyed this sight, I noticed a “herd” of horned larks frolicking amongst the road apples in the corral. Their feather tufts mimicked the horns of bulls that may have performed in the arena.
I finally tore myself away from this scene and continued driving south. I played the birding-by-car game, stopping at any turnout that safely allowed me to do so, and scanned tree and tower tops, fence posts and lines, grassy tufts and thistles for bird life. On the plains, local birders have spotted, depending on the time of year, burrowing owl, prairie and peregrine falcon, merlin, accipiters, ferruginous and rough-legged hawk, loggerhead shrike, mountain bluebird and golden eagle, migrating sandhill crane, greater white-fronted goose, tundra swan and rarely swainson’s hawk.
From Highway 44 to its terminus at Dersch Road, Millville Plains Road is only seven miles. At this point, the grasslands have given way to dense oak forest. I stopped at the Nobel Trail Bridge just before reaching Dersch Road. Birders often speak of “hot spots,” where an abundance of many species may be found in one compact area. Nobel Road, across the street from Nobles Trail Bridge, is a mini hot spot.
This place is alive with avian life. In a 15-minute period, I spotted western bluebird, oak tit, scrub jay, white-breasted nuthatch, acorn and downy woodpecker, yellow-rumped “Myrtle” warbler, california towhee, american robin, and red tailed hawk. I counted more than 50 turkey vultures flying high and headed in a southeastern direction.
I watched one acorn woodpecker drop from a perch onto the grassy carpet, grab an acorn, lift off with the payload, and carry it to a nearby oak. There it shoved the seed into an excavated hole securing part of its winter stash. About then, I marveled at how distant the honkinglike voice of white-breasted nuthatch sounds, only to realize the acrobatic little bugger was on a branch straight above, upside down, probing for insects under bark and leaf.
My arrival at Dersch Road meant the end of the trip. It also meant more possibilities. Where should I go from here? The morning was still young. I had my binoculars, my field guide, and had just been to the “Great Plains.” I decided to follow the turkey vulture’s example and make my way lazily back to the North State, and home.