Summit Road and Mount Madonna Road
This route goes for 15 miles along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and down to the Pajaro Valley. Elevations range from 2,500 to 3,050 feet for about the first 6.5 miles, and views are spectacular. One may combine this route conveniently with a visit to Loma Prieta (described above), but some birders prefer to focus on this lengthy route separately in order to cover it early in the morning. Birding is best from late April through June; the upper elevation areas may be very quiet in winter, although that is a good time to try for montane irruptives, if any are around.
The first (northwestern) half of the route passes through knobcone pine and mixed evergreen forest, and extensive areas of chaparral before descending into redwoods. One stretch (6.1 to 7.7 miles from the start) skirts the margin of an extensive wildfire that burned in fall 2002. The last (southeastern) half of the route traverses redwood forest, oak woodland, grassland, riparian forest, and even freshwater marsh. Part of Summit Rd is signed as a private road, but transit and birding are all right if you stay on the road and off private lands.
Directions. From Santa Cruz, take Hwy 17 north for 12.5 miles to the Summit Rd exit. Go right (east) 4 miles on Summit Rd, which becomes Highland Way at its intersection with Old San Jose Rd, and continue straight another 1.6 miles to its intersection with Mount Bache Rd. If you are coming from Soquel, go up Old San Jose Rd for 12 miles to its intersection with Summit Rd/Highland Way, then go east 1.6 miles on Highland Way to Mount Bache Rd. By either approach, then go 1 mile to the end of Mount Bache Rd and continue uphill for 2.8 miles on what is now Loma Prieta Ave. To start this route we now turn right just before Loma Prieta Ave makes the final climb to Loma Prieta peak. Here, a white post names our route’s road both Summit Rd and Mt Madonna Rd, and it is confusingly referred to by either name on maps and signs. Fortunately, there is little confusion about where to go, as the route follows the crest of the mountains southeast for almost 11 miles before turning to drop down to the Pajaro Valley. The birding plan all along the route is to drive and park at intervals, birding near the vehicle, or making short hikes along the road, (not into private roadside lands).
Birds. Reset the odometer at the beginning of the route, as you leave Loma Prieta Ave. Many stops will invite you in the knobcone pine and mixed evergreen forests and chaparral. Some good ones above 2,500 feet in elevation are at the following distances from the start: 1.3, 1.7, 2.4 to 2.9, 3.2, 3.7, 4.1, 4.6, 4.8, 5.1, 6.1, 6.4 and 6.6 miles. Resident species include Band-tailed Pigeon, Anna’s Hummingbird, Acorn, Nuttall’s and Hairy woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch (mature pines, playing a tape of calls is helpful), Bewick’s Wren, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, Purple Finch, and Lesser Goldfinch. Mountain Quail have been heard from the road in recent years.
In the breeding season look for Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, House Wren (rare), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s and Warbling vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler (mature pines), Black-throated Gray and Orange-crowned warblers, Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Quantities of spring migrants sometimes appear from late April to late May. These may include Vaux’s and Black swifts, Rufous Hummingbird, Cedar Waxwing, and Hermit and Townsend’s warblers. Search for migrants especially in areas with relatively tall trees (some of the woodland here is of short stature). Hermit Thrush and Fox Sparrow are regular winterers along this route. Winter irruptive species along this road have included Clark’s Nutcracker, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Red Crossbill. A few locally rare species may turn up along this part of the crest, such as Common Poorwill, Sage and Black-chinned (spring only) sparrows.
The road drops into redwood forest at 7.0 miles and continues mostly in redwoods for the next few miles, with several small meadows along the way. This is a good area to look for Hutton’s and Warbling vireos and wintering Varied Thrush. Try stops at 7.0, 7.6 and 10.2 miles from the start of the route. At 10.8 miles turn right onto what is consistently called Mt Madonna Rd, or continue straight along what is now Pole Line Rd to enter Mount Madonna County Park in Santa Clara County. Mt Madonna Rd drops quickly, losing about 1,200 feet before the next junction. There are few places to pull off safely, but stops at 12.3, 12.7, 12.9 and 13.3 miles allow you to check grassland and oak woodland habitats. In spring, watch for uncommon Lark and Grasshopper sparrows, and Lazuli Bunting in the grassland.
At 13.4 miles detour to the right along Hazel Dell Rd. It soon passes along a large marsh area with extensive willow riparian forest. Park after 0.6 mile at the junction with Green Valley Rd. (Note: Green Valley Rd is described in the section on the Pajaro Valley). Walk back along Hazel Dell to check the riparian area and marsh (Common Yellowthroat, possible Wood Duck), and also bird along the first part of Green Valley Rd. Watch for Wild Turkey, and listen for Pileated Woodpecker calling from the redwood forest near here. This area, good all year, is very lively in spring, and Black-headed Grosbeak is particularly numerous. Return to Mt Madonna Rd, and continue downhill for another 0.4 mile, and turn left onto Gaffey Rd. Park on the right about 0.1 mile in and walk the road for the next 0.6 mile to bird riparian, mixed evergreen and redwood forests. This birdy stretch of road is good for nesting Olive-sided Flycatcher, and has often had a White-throated Sparrow in winter.
Return to Mt Madonna Rd and go left for another 0.9 mile to Casserley Rd, then right on Casserley for 1.5 miles to Green Valley Rd. Turn left on Green Valley Rd to reach Watsonville. Pajaro Valley sites (see the next chapter), such as Pinto Lake, College Lake, Merk Pond, and the Watsonville Sloughs are now easy to tag onto this route.