With its bike trails, horse trails and footpaths through unspoiled forests and parkland and along stretches of both rocky and sandy riverbanks, the American River Parkway is an inspired choice to walk, run, fish and ride your bike for miles and miles in natural surroundings.
But it’s also a great place to simply slow down and look around, taking stock of the natural world in many ways.
Wildlife to see includes graceful deer, cunning coyotes, industrious beavers, pesky ground squirrels and, yes, cold-blooded rattlesnakes that slither through rocks and grasses – and occasionally across the bike trail – in search of a pint-sized, warm-blooded meal.
Every so often, a mountain lion creates a stir by wandering onto the property and, more often than not, just as quickly disappearing into more remote areas.
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In many ways, however, it is the vibrant, eclectic bird life that defines the parkway with music and color. Some birds forage. Some hunt. Some are hunted. They come in small, medium, large and extra large. They are cute and scary. They whistle. They sing. They honk. They squawk.
What follows is a list of 12 birds to go see and appreciate. Argue if you will about which birds we didn’t include. There is no better time to get out there and see the birds. The weather is not yet hot. The days are long. And many of the birds are mating and nesting.
Just last weekend we spotted the first mother goose of the season leading her family of fuzzy little goslings across the bike trail. In the days ahead, you’re apt to witness the same thing with wild turkeys and, in a much different and speedier way, California quail.
The turkey is prominent throughout much of the parkway during most months of the year. This is mating season, and the males are apt to display their feathers (called strutting) to impress a female. You’ll almost always see them on foot, but turkeys are excellent short-range fliers. They simply choose to fly only when necessary. Right now, male turkeys, called toms, gobble to attract a mate. If you try gobbling loudly, you’re apt to get a nearby tom to gobble in reply (yes, we’ve actually done this). In the days ahead, expect to see hens leading and guarding their offspring, called poults, from racoons, rat snakes and owls, among others. Turkeys tend to feed on nuts, seeds and insects.
The turkey vulture does not get the respect it deserves. It is part of nature’s cleanup crew, circling overhead until it sniffs out a rotting carcass and then swooping down for a meal, albeit a very smelly one. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. (The gull, often incorrectly called the sea gull, is also great at cleaning up messes, especially dead salmon at the end of their journey upstream.) Turkey vultures are best spotted near the bluffs around Fair Oaks, where these majestic fliers ride the thermal currents and breezes, often going many minutes without flapping their large wings.
What’s the cutest sight on the parkway? You could make a strong case for the California quail. Often several families will join in a pack, with the adults caring for the abundant hatchlings. The tiny youngsters can run at high speed almost from the moment they hatch. In spring you’ll often see quail large and minuscule pecking at seeds on the trail. But as you approach, they scurry for cover at a speed that may astound – and trigger a laugh. The California quail is our state bird. The best places to see quail in action are on sections of trail with heavy, low-lying scrub brush, where they flee when they sense trouble.
These birds are found all over North America but are so interesting we had to include them. With a shrill call so distinctive you’ll know a killdeer is around before you spot it, which is usually along rocky riverbanks or gravel roads, where they hop along looking for insects.
They are tenacious about protecting their eggs, which are usually laid next to rocks of the same size and gray color as natural camouflage. If you get too close, a killdeer will pretend to have a broken wing. When you or a predator follow – and follow some more – the killdeer suddenly “heals” and adeptly flies away. Even along a stretch of heavily traveled path, their nesting sites tend to succeed. Like California quail, killdeer hatchlings are precocial, meaning they are mobile almost immediately after they hatch.
Great blue heron
These large, majestic blue-gray birds are a special sight along the banks of the river, standing still for minutes on end. They’re hunting, though it looks like a waiting game. Herons aren’t fond of humans and their dogs. Get too close and they promptly fly off, extending their massive wings and heading to a secluded spot. These great birds eat fish or, on occasion, small rodents. Though it appears to be slow moving, the heron’s neck can snap forward in a blur to catch its prey with its long, pointed beak.
Egrets often stand in shallow water, their elongated necks turning and bending to catch a glimpse of a small fish, frog or lizard. These pure white birds are a dazzling sight. In the 19th century, they were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. Conservation efforts have helped make them plentiful once more, and they can be seen throughout the parkway, though not quite to the degree they can be spotted on the causeway along Interstate 80 between Davis and Sacramento. When it takes off, solo or in small groups, the great egret is a beautiful flier.
The cormorant is built for speed, making it a blur of elongated black beak and black plumage racing low along the river. Cormorants have a relatively short wingspan so they can deep-dive for fish. While the American River is mostly shallow, some cormorant species have been known to dive 45 feet beneath the surface. When they’re not dazzling us with their flying and diving prowess, they’re turning heads with how they perch in trees or on heavy power lines, spreading their large wings to dry out after a dip in the water.
Though it has distinctive black-and-white plumage, you’ll know you’re in the presence of this raptor not by its feathers but its unusual hunting technique. The white-tailed kite hovers on high, sizing up its prey before diving straight down to capture an unsuspecting field mouse or lizard. They do most of their hunting in open, grassy fields.
You can spot these birds along sandy stretches of the riverbanks by their long, skinny (yellow) legs. With their thin, elongated bills, they eat worms, insects, small fish and crustaceans. Like the killdeer, they make their nests on the ground, usually near the water, but they hide them much better. If you’re walking along wet sandy or muddy riverbanks, you’re likely to spot the yellowlegs’ sharply etched tracks, or footprints.
This threatened bird has plenty of friends and admirers, including the Sacramento-based group Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk, which offers “Five Amazing Facts About Swainson’s Hawks.” Among those: The hawk flies thousands of miles each year between its nesting habitat and wintering territory. These hawks fly in flocks of hundreds as they head to Argentina come winter. Here, they feed on small rodents on farmland and can be found nesting in trees along the river.
There are several swallow species found along the parkway, but the cliff swallow may be the easiest to spot with their bright red faces and a patch of white that resembles a headlamp. Find them in large groups around bridges, flying in a distinctive pattern – swooping, turning, soaring in rapid fashion – as they feed on insects. They also feed close to the water surface, with other species of swallows.
This is a very-Sacramento bird. Magpie Cafe chose the name because the magpie “is native to the Sacramento area, and is the only bird found solely on the California mainland.” When the West Nile virus hit town, magpies died in droves, and it was feared the specifies could be wiped out. In recent years, the yellow-billed magpie, a member of the crow family, has rebounded.
Editor’s note: This story was changed at 6:40 a.m. April 16 to remove an erroneous reference to Benjamin Franklin.