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The Birds of Mount Diablo's Chaparral

By Kevin Hintsa

Chaparral refers to a type of natural habitat where the rocky soil supports a community of nearly impenetrable shrubs. Often chaparral is found on either south or west-facing slopes, locally dominated by such plants as Chamise (especially in older sections), four species of manzanita, Black Sage, Buck Brush, Jim Brush, and California Sagebrush. To the casual birder, the chaparral poses a difficult challenge to even get a glimpse of its skulking birdlife. Mount Diablo’s extensive and relatively easy accessible chaparral provides an unequaled opportunity for birdwatchers to explore its mysteries.The feathered denizens of the chaparral are notorious for being shy and can be difficult to view. Observers should take advantage of chaparral birds using conspicuous singing perches and familiarize themselves with their vocalizations. Sometimes an individual shrub (such as Toyon) can be loaded with ripe berries and will attract a large variety of birds. Many of the chaparral birds are actually very curious and can be easily attracted by a practice sometimes known as "squeaking". This is a series of assorted noises made by the birdwatcher, the principle one being a slurred call that resembles the admonishment "shhh". Note though that birds are easily frightened by sudden movements. Also, I have noticed that birds in breeding season are more easily disturbed when I wear white rather than by other colors.

Extensive chaparral is located along Wall Ridge (accessible from either Rock City or Macedo Ranch) and along Knobcone Point trail (access from Curry Point). I prefer the Wall Ridge area due to recent fires. A very productive area along Summit Road is the section from the Pines Picnic Area to Pioneer Horse Camp. One of my favorite sites is Muir Picnic Area, a productive area nearly year round. White Canyon is often visited by birders, though it has rather dense chaparral and it can be difficult to view chaparral birds here.

Anna's Hummingbird | Dave Furseth

Spotted Towhee | Dave Furseth

Breeding birds species in the chaparral include:

  • California Quail (year round)

  • Anna’s Hummingbird (year round)

  • Western Scrub-Jay (year round)

  • Bushtit (year round)

  • Canyon Wren (year round where boulders or caves are present)

  • Bewick’s Wren (year round)

  • Wrentit (year round)

  • California Thrasher (year round)

  • Spotted Towhee (year round)

  • California Towhee (year round)

  • Rufous-crowned Sparrow (year round)

  • Sage Sparrow (year round)

  • Common Poorwill (year round, but mostly April to August, nocturnal)

  • Ash-throated Flycatcher (April to September, needs at least a few trees)

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (mostly March to October)

  • Orange-crowned Warbler (mostly February to September)

  • Lazuli Bunting (April to September)

  • Black-chinned Sparrow (mostly late April to June)


In winter, look for the permanent residents plus:

  • Sharp-shinned Hawk (commonly hunts over chaparral)

  • Townsend’s Solitaire (rare)

  • Hermit Thrush

  • American Robin (mainly around Toyon bushes)

  • Varied Thrush (uncommon)

  • Fox Sparrow (often the most abundant species)

  • Golden-crowned Sparrow (common)

  • Dark-eyed Junco (a permanent resident, but more common here in the winter)

  • Purple Finch


During migration also look for:

  • Calliope Hummingbird (rare)

  • Rufous Hummingbird

  • Yellow Warbler

  • Townsend’s Warbler

  • Hermit Warbler (mostly in May)

  • Lawrence’s Goldfinch (nearly year round, but mostly seen in spring)

California Quail | Dave Furseth

Chaparral birds are not uniformly distributed, with many species showing marked preferences for certain microhabitats. Sage and Black-chinned Sparrow strongly prefer burned-over Chamise or where there are gaps in the Chamise. Rufous-crowned Sparrow usually prefers California Sagebrush or Poison Oak clumps. Old stands of pure Chamise or pure stands of Coyote Brush usually have the least interesting birdlife. Burned areas usually become very productive about 3 years after a fire.

No matter what the season or the location, chaparral birding can be quite interesting with time and patience.

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