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83. Panoche Valley, San Benito County, California

Bird Panoche Valley Road south of Hollister in search of Golden Eagle, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, Phainopepla, Greater Roadrunner, and Long-eared Owl.

Like many Northern California birders, I don’t let winter pass without making an overnight trip south to San Benito County so I can spend a full day birding in the Panoche Valley. Panoche Valley Road takes the birder eastward through the inner coastal mountains and out onto the flat, dry plains on the other side, passing through many unspoiled habitats. Wintering raptors and other open-country specialties abound, including Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, California Thrasher, Yellow-billed Magpie, Phainopepla, and Greater Roadrunner.

The route reliably produces a number of unusual and interesting species as well as a surprise or two. Last winter, after encountering a Rough-legged Hawk, Western Bluebirds, and Yellow-billed Magpies in the oak savannah, my companions and I stopped to check stony cliffs for Canyon Wren. The wren was not to be found, but several Lark Sparrows sang from a grove of cottonwoods. Then, much to our amazement, we saw a Great Horned Owl hunkered down on a ledge under a rocky overhang, apparently on a nest. I had read about Great Horned Owls nesting on cliffs but had not seen the behavior before. — Carolyn Longstreth

Carolyn Longstreth is a Bay Area birder and outdoors enthusiast who writes about birds and the environment.

83. Panoche Valley, San Benito County, California


The Panoche Valley is a Central California hotspot accessible via Panoche Valley Rd. and Little Panoche Rd. From Hollister, drive south on Hwy. 25 for 11.8 miles to the junction with Panoche Valley Rd. Start by birding Paicines Reservoir and the trees behind it at the west end of the road. Then drive into the valley and stop often to find birds.

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At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
36°39’59.26″N 121°10’48.79″W 


Freshwater reservoir, grasslands, riparian areas, oak savannah, chaparral, wooded foothills, rock-covered cliffs, and flat open shortgrass prairie.


Varies from flat and grassy to hilly and rocky. Most birding is by car.


Paicines Reservoir: Common Merganser, Western and Pied-billed Grebes. On Panoche Valley Rd.: Yellow-billed Magpie, Western Bluebird, Western Kingbird, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned, Rough-legged, and Red-tailed Hawks, Lark Sparrow, and Yellow-rumped and other warblers. In dry rocky areas west of Panoche Pass: Golden Eagle, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, California Thrasher, Phainopepla, and Rock and Canyon Wrens. East of Panoche Pass: Prairie Falcon, Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, Cassin’s Kingbird, Say’s Phoebe, Greater Roadrunner, Western Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, and Mountain Bluebird. In tamarisk trees at Mercey Hot Springs: Long-eared Owl.

When to go

November through March.


Restrooms at the Panoche Inn, east of Panoche Pass and just before the turn onto Little Panoche Rd., and at Mercey Hot Springs Resort.


Public road winding through private ranchlands. Light traffic permits frequent stops to bird from the road or walk alongside it. No fees except at Mercey Hot Springs ($6 to walk the grounds).


Bird density is heavier at the west end of the route, so it’s best to begin birding there in the morning. By early afternoon, raptors may be soaring over grasslands near Panoche Inn. Spotting scopes and raingear recommended. Gas up before leaving Hollister and bring lunch.

For more info

Birding San Benito County

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