A friend and I decided to take another short trip to Gold Country during the holidays. We’d gone in 2008 for a longer stay. This time, we stayed two nights. After some searching for lodging, we decided on a house on 217 acres. We decided to take it instead of staying in town, as we’d be able to wander the property, which has trails, and we could wander at night if we wanted to.
We left around 10:25, and got to the New Melones Lake Visitors’ Center around lunchtime. Nearing our destination, we spotted a Bald Eagle flying over the hills.
We had lunch, while watching birds and a few honey bees. Acorn Woodpecker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Lesser Goldfinch were plentiful, and we also saw and heard White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Black Phoebe, Northern Flicker, Oak Titmouse, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, Lincoln’s Sparrow and crowned sparrows. After lunch, we walked partway on the Norwegian Gulch Trail. It looked different. When the trail started to head downhill, we didn’t remember it being so close to water. We stopped and turned around, as there were some people with their dogs at the water, and we could hear them from where we were.
Since it was after check-in time, we decided to take care of that. We drove around the property to find the house and where to check in, and noticed a plethora of birds: Spotted Towhee, Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, European Starling, California Quail, Northern Flicker, Acorn Woodpecker, Western Bluebird.
After unloading, moving a millipede from the bathtub, and placing a trail camera, we headed over to Natural Bridges Trail. Our mistake last time was that we walked past the end of the drive rather than entering the actual trail, close to the gate. It was after 4:00, but since the trail was only .7 miles, we figured we had enough time. We left the trailhead at 4:25, and got to the stairs and We saw and heard many Hermit Thrush, Spotted Towhee, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Wrentit, and California Towhee. We also saw some interesting plants, including Red Berry and Mountain Mahoghany.
We got down to the stairs and first bridge/outlet at 5:10. After about 20 minutes of exploring, we started back up. I didn’t realize that the bridges were actually further, but it was getting dark anyway. We usually have our flashlights with us, but I wasn’t sure if they locked the gate. The crescent moon and Venus were close together, and we stopped to take photos. We were back at the trailhead at 5:55, then headed over to Murphy’s for dinner. We had a tasty meal, but it took a long time.
Back at the house, we put a log in the fireplace and moved some chairs closer. We noticed something on the carpet–leaves? A closer look revealed two small Western Fence Lizards! They were mostly immobile. The smaller one did climb a little on my hand; both seemed calm and allowed us to look at their ventral sides. Another surprise was a small jumping spider (Salticid) on the wall.
I slept well both nights, and during the first night, I woke to hear a Great Horned Owl hoot quickly nearby, with a “wah” sound after. I’m not sure if that was the owl, or something else. I also heard, at another time, something walking through the fallen leaves. There was what appeared to be raccoon scat by the back walk.
The large blackberry tangle, that was the highlight of the picture window view, attracted many birds. After breakfast the next morning, we took a hike on the property to see what else was around, at 11:00. It wasn’t clear from the map where the start of the trail was, and we climbed over some old barbed wire where it appeared to be. Making our way through oaks, lots of Hermit Thrush called and sometimes made their appearances. Frozen dewdrops on the grass, and frosty leaves looked magical. We climbed up to the ridge, finding different scats and shrubs, and a partial deer skull showing the complex sutures, along the way. We reached the opening of the woods at 12:30, and entered grassland. It took us another 20 minutes to explore and stop at a place that we could see part of New Melones Lake. Some dry Birdsfoot Fern, and a dragonfly interested us, and I found a louse fly in my pocket.
Besides some of the birds we’d already seen there, we added Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Black Phoebe, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Oak Titmouse, Lesser Goldfinch, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Bewick’s Wren, Hutton’s Vireo, Common Raven, and Red-tailed Hawk, Western Scrub-jay, and Northern Mockingbird.
We started down, and wandered to the right, ending up on the wrong side of a fence on the other side of which was our house. There were a couple of large, machine-dug holes. We picked our way through manzanitas, and refound the trail. At the same fence that we’d climbed over before, we found a mantid ootheca on the post. We had a late lunch after arriving back at the house at 2:30.
As we left to go to town, a flock of Wild Turkeys moved around the barn. We paused to watch two of them lock heads. Arriving in Murphy’s close to 5:00, we found that most of the shops closed at that time. We walked to the end of town to work up an appetite, then picked a place that had a couple of interesting dishes on the menu. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving one of them, and what we picked for our entrees was disappointing and not what we expected.
After dinner, we stopped at the pond on the property. The water smelled somewhat stagnant, and there were no signs of life. There were a few dessicated mushrooms in the ground, and we found an odd styrofoam-feeling cocoon? partially wrapped in oak leaves. Something was loose inside.
Wednesday was our last day, and while we got our things together, the Wild Turkey flock walked around the house. Two of the turkeys scuffled, and one or two others seemed to get into the act also. They didn’t lock heads this time, but kicked. We looked at them more closely to try and figure out their genders. They didn’t appear to be adult males, and at least a couple of them looked younger. More bird species showed up: House Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow.
We stopped at the pond on the way out to find the cocoon again, and also found a fallen mud bird nest. Another interesting find was a pecked oak apple gall with a lacewing egg on the opened part! A few American Coots and Ring-necked Ducks floated on the water.
It was almost lunchtime, and we decided to stop in town. Mineral was open, which gave us wonderful, creative vegetarian meals.
After a walk around town, Calaveras Big Trees was our last hike. It was 3:40 when we got going again. We took the North Grove Trail, but because there were a relatively large number of people with loud kids, we split off and took the Grove Overlook Trail. We did manage to hear Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Raven, and a White-headed Woodpecker. We couldn’t find that in the trees though.
Back at the lot at 5:25, only two other cars were left. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw the only snow we’d seen on the trip, a 15′ strip along one part of the lot. Without stops, it took us almost 2.5 hours to get home.
Here are more photos.