In Search of the Riparian Brush Rabbit – San Joaquin River NWR, 2015

A few months ago (at the end of February), I went to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of California’s Central Valley to try to observe the rare Riparian Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius) in the wild. I’m happy to report that I was successful!

The Riparian Brush Rabbit is one of California’s rarest mammal taxa, state endangered, and with a range encompassing a handful of tiny remnant riparian forest patches in the northern San Joaquin Valley, near where it converges with the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. This area once contained a healthy mosaic of marshes, swamps, canals, rivers, and woodlands, regions where the rabbit was once abundant, but intensive land use and modification of this area (primarily for agriculture) has changed the majority of the region’s wildlife habitat for the worse. Now, the Riparian Brush Rabbit occurs in 3 areas: the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Frank’s tract and Lodi, Caswell Memorial State Park along the San Joaquin River, and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (SJRNWR), where animals were reintroduced to newly restored riparian forest. Out of all these areas, SJRNWR contains the largest population today.

I had received information that the best place to look for the rabbits was in the restroom compound surrounding the main parking area, but all I could find here were Desert Cottontails (at any rate, the habitat looked wrong for Brush Rabbit). So, I walked towards the riverine forests along Ingram Creek to the North of the main parking lot along the levee trails. I saw many Desert Cottontails, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, California Ground Squirrels, Great Horned Owls, Sandhill Cranes, and finally, 1 precious little Brush Rabbit at the edge of the trail in an area of dense vine thicket underneath Cottonwood and Valley Oak forest (excellent habitat). I tried looking for any more, but couldn’t find any – not unexpected due to the shy nature of the rabbits and the dense habitat.

We returned to our car and left the refuge right as the gates were about to close – a fun little outing, a cool animal to add to the list, and just another reminder that you don’t need to go to some remote national park deep in the Amazon or Congo to see endangered wildlife – there’s plenty of it “right in your backyard”, no matter where you live.

Venkat