Birding in Kaweah Oaks Preserve
Bird's Eye View
Story by Michael O'Brien
“A pleasant area in the midst of a troubled place.” That is how the word “oasis” is defined by Wikipedia. Kaweah Oaks Preserve, just east of Visalia, is such a place. Carved out of agriculturally transformed landscape, surrounded by a desert of orchards, this nature preserve protects one of the last remaining valley oak riparian forests in the San Joaquin Valley. More than 300 plant, animal and bird species live, feed or reproduce here.
The Yokuts (pronounced “Yo-kotch”) people once inhabited the foothills of the Sierra Mountains around the Kaweah River. These California Indians used this area to gather acorns from the oak trees, salt grass, wild grapes and medicinal plants. The name "Kaweah" is thought to mean "crow" or "raven cry" in the Yokuts language.
In 1983, concerned local citizens who realized the importance of this land partnered with The Nature Conservancy and purchased it for preservation. Ten years later, The Nature Conservancy transferred the preserve title to the Four Creeks Land Trust, a local conservation organization. This trust later merged with two other land trusts to form Sequoia Riverlands Trust, and currently manages Kaweah Oaks Preserve for research, livestock grazing, environmental education and public enjoyment.
To get to Kaweah Oaks Preserve, travel seven miles east of downtown Visalia via Highway 198, then drive a half-mile north on Road 182. The entrance and parking lot are on the west side of the road. Once parked, make your way to the gateway pavilion and check out the displays describing the area. You’ll find the entrance gate west of the pavilion. You may pick up a Kaweah Oaks Preserve Community Access Guide at the donation box.
The guide describes four short, self-guided nature trails on the preserve. Trails begin about a half a mile west of the gate. Each trail allows the hiker to experience a different aspect of this oak woodland environment.
The Sycamore Trail starts on the north end of the property. A posted trail advisory indicates that this area has been ravaged by the recent drought. Thirty acres of this section burned in a 2016 fire. It is ugly right now as the vegetation regrows. But this denuded landscape lends itself, ironically, to nice birding.
Enter this area via a zig-zag gate at its northwest corner. Acorn and Nuttall’s woodpeckers, along with Northern Flicker, work the dead trees for saprophyte insects. Check the many brush piles in this area for sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warbler and juncos. House Finch roams this part of the preserve. Their call is distinctive and they like to perch in the treetops and on the fenceposts that separate the fields from the forest. Also look on the lower branches and fenceposts for Western Bluebird. Male bluebirds flash bright blue from their head and back, and chestnut from their breast as they dart from perch to ground, pouncing for prey. Listen for their sweet pew pew call as they wait for their next target.
The center of the property features lots of open pastureland. It is fenced and often full of grazing cattle. Use your binoculars to spot Western Meadowlark, Western Bluebird and overflying Great Blue Heron, American Crow, Cliff Swallow and raptors such as Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks. At dusk, Great Horned Owl begins an evening of hooting and hunting.
The Grapevine and Wild Rose trails lie on the southern border of the park, adjacent to one another. These paths wind their way through California wild grape and valley oak woodlands. Extension Ditch and Johnson’s Slough flow through this area, creating the riparian aspect of this part of the preserve. Look for Oak Titmouse, Western Scrub Jay, Anna’s Hummer, and in summer months, Bullock’s Oriole high in the treetops.
The Swamp Trail covers the western edge of the park. Deep Creek flows through, adding to the swampy makeup of the landscape. Birding is excellent in this area as well, which is attributed to the swamp’s diverse flora. Each plant species offers something unique to bird nesting or foraging. Self-guided tour signage describes willow, valley oaks, white root sedge, blackberry and wild grape vine, blue elderberry and creeping wildrye. Examine the understory, tree middle branches and tops, and creeksides. Each habitat attracts a different set of bird species. Bring a folding camp chair, pick a spot and take some time. The birds in Kaweah Oaks Preserve will come to you.
(559) 738-0211 • Restrooms available