Research: Alamo Creek

Nothing starts a morning like the glow of sunrise through oak branches.

We were delighted by the trees at our last site. But a short journey outside Vacaville to Alamo Creek put us beneath an even thicker canopy of buckeye, walnuts, laurel, and three species of oaks, all twisting their branches over the grassy hills and trickling creek bed.

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Cattle coming to the creek to drink.

Much of the bird life here is remarkably similar to when Henry Storer camped in the canyon in 1912, though this seems to be yet another place where the trees have regained ground over the past 100 years. We missed historically-seen species such as lark sparrow and meadowlark, both of which thrive on open space. In contrast, the canyon’s tree-dwelling species appear to be flourishing.

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Western Wood-pewee enjoying the trees along the creek.

But there have been some unexpected additions to the bird community as well. As one moves up in elevation, the bird list typically changes as foothill species are swapped out for their mountainous counterparts.

For example, Western Scrub-jays are birds of the valley, whereas Steller’s Jays replace them higher up. Storer saw only the former along Alamo Creek. But we saw both.

And in contrast to Storer’s respectable three species of woodpecker, we spotted an amazing five, including the grand-daddy of them all: the Pileated Woodpecker, a goliath of a bird with a cardinal-red mohawk and a call loud enough to wake a statue. Add to that Downy Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch, and we had a surprising list of birds typically found in the deeper forests of higher elevations. Instead, we were less than a mile in from the Central Valley floor.

Why have these birds crept down to the base of the foothills over the past century? It’s the kind of question I don’t have an answer to. Yet. But hopefully the coming years of research will change that.

After our busy dawns looking at birds, we typically spent the rest of our mornings at our favorite city park in Vacaville, pouring over plant books in an attempt to identify dried roadside weeds and a frustrating diversity of oak leaves.

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Praying mantis checking out our data sheets.

And after that, more time to explore the exciting city of Vacaville. Except we sort of saw all the exciting things the first three days we were here. So we kept ourselves entertained by trying to track down the grand historic sites along main street (the ones that actually existed, anyway: we were most dismayed to discover the “historic jail” advertised in our pamphlet actually blew into the creek in the early 1900s). So we got to see a statue of some fruit pickers. A library. An opera house. And honestly, the highlight of it all was the ice cream truck we managed to flag down for popsicles along the way.

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Fruit picker statue in downtown Vacaville.
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