I read Neil Hayward's blog about his difficulties finding Mountain Quail, before we met in late July on the Half Moon Bay pelagic trip. I provided Neil several suggestions about locations for Mountain Quail based on my own experience and the experiences of Greg Miller and Dan Sanders who have done Big Years. I was planning to use the information on Neil's blog about Tessajara Road for Mountain Quail, but Neil and I have had several discussions about his experience in finding Mountain Quail at this location--at Gambell and since then on the Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay pelagic trips. I have also shared previous experiences with Neil about finding Himalayan Snowcock and west coast airports with cheaper flights, car rental and easier access. Neil has shared a lot of information about locations for birds I still need and his experiences finding them. Doing a Big Year requires a special set of birding and travel skills and Big Year birders need to stick together.
I left for Tassajara Road at about 4:30 am from Salinas and arrived at the intersection of Carmel Valley Road and Tassajara Road at about 6:30 am to a lightening sky. I was surprised at the number of vehicles that I meet on Tassajara Road as I drove up and even after the pavement ended. I believe that about four vehicles passed me going downhill and one going uphill. There are a number of private lanes off of this road. Some of these vehicles may have been hunters. Others may have been parents taking kids down to the entry of Tassajara Road to meet the school bus which I meet on the way up. It was discouraging, because each vehicle travelling this road ahead of me probably cleared the roadside of any Mountain Quail. I stopped a few times to look and listen but then kept driving up the road. I knew I needed to get higher to get in better Mountain Quail habitat and to escape the vehicle traffic.
When the habitat became more open near a corral my heart started pumping faster at the sight of a flock of quail feeding in the road, but alas, they were only California Quail. I took some quick photos and continued driving up the mountain. Soon after the corral, I entered Los Padres National Forest and passed a NF campground, which I drive through. Above the campground I found Band-tailed Pigeons, new bird for the year. I continued to the top of the mountain the first place where the road dropped down and where there is a gate on the left with a road closed sign. At the top, the habitat looked good for quail, few trees with low brushy vegetation and the closed to vehicle road had apparently been walked before providing an entry to the habitat. I searched on the internet and found that this is the road to Monterrey Institute of Research in Astronomy (MIRA), Oliver Observatory on Chews Ridge at 5045 feet elevation.
I walked back this road slowly listening and looking. It was quite birdy along this road. At the top of this road is open low and medium height brushy habitat with Fox and White-crowned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. There were many dead trees in the area due to an apparent previous fire, several of which looked like Christmas trees with candelabra of Band-tailed Pigeons. I estimated 100+ Band-tailed Pigeons in the area. I walked down the road to the right where it passed through tall pines. It was about 8:30 am, the sun was getting high and I expected it to be almost too late to find Mountain Quail unless I could find them feeding in the shade. Shortly after I entered the tall open pine stand, a covey of about 6 quail burst from the grass in the shade of a pine tree about 30 feet from road on the left and flew into the higher thicker brush. They were making the alarm call and covey connection rapid peeping calls of Mountain Quail. Most of the birds quickly disappeared down into the brush but one, the apparent sentry, sat up for a short period of time for my observation and a few distant photos in poor lighting conditions, which will require work in Adobe Photoshop when I recover that capability. I saw the chestnut sides with bold white vertical barring and the single line of relatively broad white streaks at top of the barred sides and the darker throat with the white border but without a white supercillium like California Quail. The head was in the shade; therefore, I could not see the chestnut color on the throat patch. The head plumes were hidden by the brushy background and leaves but may be visible in the photos with work in Adobe Photoshop. These were clearly Mountain Quail.
I enjoyed birding the area a little longer. Steller's Jays replaced the Western Scrub Jays of lower elevation and Cassin's Finches were calling, singing and easily seen in the tall pines. I started down the mountain sometime after 9:00 am. There were lots of Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon race) along Tassajara Road. Just before the junction with Carmell Valley Road, a covey of California Quail ran down the bank on the left and flew into the trees on the right. I saw them briefly while perched and flying further into the trees. These wrote clearly California Quail with horizontal white streaking on the sides, black throat bordered by white with a white horizontal border to the crown above the eye and plumes that were thicker and rounded on the end. I stopped at Wild Goose Bakery and Cafe in Carmel Valley for a late breakfast of a breakfast sandwich on fresh baked bun and told the owner and a customer why i was in the area to let them know that birders visit the area and spend money locally. It was very satisfying to enjoy the freshly made breakfast and bask in the glow of seeing a really tough bird to find.
Band-tailed Pigeon and Mountain Quail are new for the year. The total is now 666.
I'm flying to LA area to try for Yellow-green Vireo, Spotted Dove and Nutmeg Mannikin and a possible Ruff.