Red-breasted Sapsucker by Lee Jaffe

A sip of Napa Valley's birdlife

(published 2-24-22)

Most visitors to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa thirst for a fine cabernet. Me? I went for the birds.

It was the last stop on our family vacation to Napa Valley, the penultimate day of 2021. I volunteered for designated driver duty while my wife and two kids attended the tour and tasting. When we pulled into Stag's Leap, the birding potential seemed excellent. The grounds were beautiful. So instead of dropping everybody off and heading for Oxbow Preserve in Napa, I stayed put. It would prove to be a wise choice.

It was nice to get away—our first all-family trip since well before the pandemic. We picked the Napa region because we'd never been and because it seemed like a good place for our son (“Jaybird”) to turn 21 on Dec. 27.

The viticulture scene was interesting, from the vineyard-filled landscapes to the educational tastings. Being an occasional red wine drinker, I could appreciate all of it. But the chance to see new birds is what filled my glass. I'd birded in California only once before, in San Diego.

Our rental home in St. Helena featured a birdy backyard—no feeders, but lots of attractive plantings and a giant live oak. We arrived after dark on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning I began to collect the feathered gifts. One of them, an oak titmouse, ranked high on the wish list I'd scratched out the week before—the first of four "lifers" on the trip.

I was looking at everything, of course. Some of the common birds were species I'd seen only once or a few times before, like Anna's hummingbird, black phoebe, chestnut-backed chickadee, California towhee, scrub jay, Steller’s jay and western bluebird. Each sighting brought back memories of other places where I'd felt the thrill of spotting something new.

I was a happy birder just watching the yard and walking around the neighborhood, not knowing what might pop up next. Even the juncos were new, all sporting their distinct West Coast plumage. The croaks of resident common ravens filled the air.

Acorn Woodpecker by Lee Jaffe

One afternoon stroll took me past a scruffy junk-strewn property, the kind of place where you expect a big dog to come charging.  None did, and from the edges, I observed my first Nuttall's woodpecker, a classic California species that’s similar to our downy and hairy woodpeckers.

To my surprise, the lot featured a fresh-looking hopper feeder filled with mixed seed—perhaps a newly installed Christmas gift. Among its customers were a pair of Eurasian collared doves. I didn't think much of it, but later, when studying the local bird checklist published by Napa Solano Audubon, I realized the non-native dove was an unusual visitor.

At Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, near Calistoga, I caught a three-second glimpse of a varied thrush—my reward for summitting Coyote Peak, a rather challenging hike. Despite the brief look, it was satisfying to finally see a varied thrush in its proper habitat. My only previous encounter with the species, a Pacific Northwest specialty, was in Evanston, Ill., in 2013. Lots of us remember that bird, a backyard sensation for several weeks.

At Moore Creek Park we tried an all-family hike along the edge of Lake Hennessey—that is, one birder and three non-birders. Two regrets here: rain cut our outing short, and I botched the ID on a golden eagle. I knew the big raptor was an eagle, but my lack of experience with goldens made me blurt out "immature bald eagle!" Only later did I realize my error. My family got over this very quickly.

California Quail by Lee Jaffe

When the drizzle picked up at Moore Creek everyone scrambled back to the car except me. I'd located a colony of noisy acorn woodpeckers and couldn't pull myself away. Then I remembered: I have the car keys! Time to pick up the pace. Just before reaching the parking lot, another target species stopped me in my tracks—a covey of California quail. After delivering the keys I went back for a longer look. Luckily, my family was able to see the quail, too, as we pulled out. Even soggy non-birders can appreciate California's charismatic state bird.

Barn owls are known to hang around the vineyards, and I noticed a few pole-mounted nesting boxes to attract them. But no owls. California thrasher also eluded me, and I didn't see a spotted towhee all week.

The trip ended on a high note, though, thanks to our visit to Stag's Leap. For nearly three hours I stalked around with my binoculars, getting to know the security guards in the process. They were friendly, and I sensed their bemusement to be chatting with a tourist who was more interested in finding birds than sipping award-winning wine.

One guard told me about all the quail and turkeys on the property. That was news to me—I saw none. But I did see 22 other kinds of birds, including a gazillion yellow-rumped warblers, the most abundant species all week. My best find was a red-breasted sapsucker—a most welcome surprise because I'd somehow overlooked it during my pre-trip research.

That night, at a trendy restaurant in Napa, we raised a toast to a fun-filled day and week, and a positive end to a difficult year. Three wine glasses tapped against my pint of beer. The family pardoned my choice of beverage, understanding that the excitement of a life bird can sometimes cloud my judgement.

Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.