Research: Knight’s Ferry

The first site of the summer was more breathtaking than any I visited last year.

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The small town of Knight’s Ferry sits just within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, along the steep cliffs carved out by the Stanislaus River. How I would have loved to see such green hills last year. The grass covering the gently-rolling slopes atop the ridges is chocked full of purple lupines and Gold Poppies, and overhung by a light canopy of Blue Oak and Interior Live Oak. Altogether, some of the most perfect oak savannah I have ever seen.

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Joseph Grinnell was here in 1937. He writes:

Knight’s Ferry, important one-time cross-roads to ‘the mines,’ on Stanislaus River . . . [counted birds] from covered bridge up north side of river from the town, over old road and ancient ditch.

The bridge he mentions is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi; 330 feet of old creaking boards first built in 1857, washed away by flood in 1862, and rebuilt to its current state in 1864.

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Knight’s Ferry itself is small and dwindling. Some effort seems to have been put into making the town a historic tourist attraction, but as we drove by, most of the old buildings were closed or in disrepair. Near the bridge, a small museum boasted a surprisingly elaborate nature center, though the taxidermy lining the walls proved just as entertaining as it was educational.

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Bird counts started at dawn. All along our path the gentle roar of the Stanislaus River filled the air. Above it was a constant chattering of swallows and the occasional dry wingbeat of a Turkey Vulture riding the thermals. From within the canyon, the loopy descending trills of Canyon Wrens echoed between the rocks.

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Decades ago Grinnell described a much different place, with hills full of Lilac bushes, Say’s Phoebes, Lark Sparrows, and California Towhees. All markers of a chaparral community. The hills have apparently grown much lusher since then. Black Phoebes dart along the river banks. House Wrens and Acorn Woodpeckers serenade from the oak branches. Many of the old birds remain as well. But it’s obvious this place is in transition. And it is perhaps the most untouched place we will be visiting this summer. Far greater changes are to come.

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