Saturday, August 25, 2007

So. California August 2007

My usual trip to Southern California to see Grandma P., and Aunt Marilyn & Uncle Skip provided plenty of occasions to visit fantastic local birding spots, including nearby Boca Chica Wildlife Preserve and San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (home of renowned Sea & Sage Audubon Society -- their up-coming yearly fundraiser has D.A. Sibley as keynote speaker, ooh-la-la!)

A cheaper ticket had me flying into San Diego where I was able to visit high school friends who have settled on the West Coast. Between watching my friends play volleyball and rock climbing (I did make one easy "scramble") I was able to check out some of the local birds.

This is the first year I had come up with a real 'wish list' for birds I was hoping to see. So a moderate list of 15 new birds was my target for the 2-week stay.

[I will list my personal highlights in the narrative but include a full species list at the end]


The first afternoon I was free to visit Old Mission Gorge and Dam (20 minutes of east of northern San Diego) where I found BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD, WRENTIT, RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW and LARK SPARROW.

The following day I had good luck in back of my friend Kelly's house which abuts a beautiful dry, chaparral hillside.
I found BUSHTIT, BEWICK'S WREN and a large group of CALIFORNIA QUAIL.

That evening at dusk we were able to make out a calling COMMON POORWILL.

Orange County

I arrived at Grandma's at noon on Monday. And although we spent a lot of time together, early morning proved to be a perfect time to get out for birdwatching and hiking before grandma rose for the day.

On Wednesday and Thursday mornings Uncle Skip, who serves as a docent at the Sea and Sage Audubon Society and is an avid traveler, birder and photographer, took me out birding. The previous week he had meticulously scouted local birding spots in search of all the birds on my wish list and felt confident that most of the birds were likely or strong possibilities at least.

We ventured out to an oak canyon woodland on the Whiting Ranch property in Lake Forest where we were able to find OAK TITMOUSE relatively easily and view NUTALL'S WOODPECKER although they were quite elusive -- often heard but not seen. A SAY'S PHOEBE was also perched in the interior or a dense tree but gave me just enough of a look and enough color to confidently identify it.

We were then off to the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary the home of the Sea and Sage Audubon Society, where I only needed two life birds to achieve my 300th American Birding Association (ABA) bird. WESTERN SANDPIPER were feeding in the first pond we came to where we also found somewhat confusingly plumaged (at least to me) CINNAMON TEAL, a species of duck, in eclipse, or having just shed feathers help us to distinguish bird species. The teal was my 300th bird which is fitting because I've wanted to see this bird for some time!! Wahoo!
Shortly thereafter we found WILSON'S PHALAROPE and RED-NECKED PHALAROPE in nice plumage, the latter being yet another life bird.
We scoured the grounds for White-faced Ibis which had not been seen at the refuge for at least two weeks. We didn't have any luck turning one up either.
I also looked for Bell's Vireo which is a rare and declining bird but seems to like the grounds of the refuge. Although the bird had been heard in the area in the preceding days I was not able to hear or see one. We did have a good number of other species, including terns, and a variety of shorebirds.

The next day we started at Boca Chica where we found over thousands of TERN, many BLACK SKIMMERS and MARBLED GODWIT. We also had great views of a family of COOPER'S HAWKS apparently teaching two juveniles to hunt, KESTREL, WHITE and BROWN PELICAN, and four heron species.

Traveling south on Pacifica Coast Highway Crystal Cove Park, where I got my life CALIFORNIA GNATCATCHER last summer, Uncle Skip pulled into a street that ended at a bluff overlooking Crescent Beach on the northern edge of the town of Laguna Beach.

At the beach we were in search of Black Oystercatcher, Pelagic Cormorant from my wish list and Uncle Skip had hoped for the possibility of Wandering Tattler and Surfbird, two more shorebirds. Uncle Skip spotted WHIMBREL and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER far down the beach. He then found a suspicious lone cormorant that turned out to be the PELAGIC CORMORANT we were after. Then a WANDERING TATTLER emerged from a hiding place below us and gave us great views of its breast which showed that it was still in near breeding plumage with beautiful barring. All in all a great day and wonderful time with Uncle Skip!
We finished it off with some drinks and lunch at one of my favorite lunch spots, SPLASHES which is set just feet above the beach at the SURF AND SAND HOTEL in Laguna Beach.

A trip to Grandma's would not be complete without wonderful time together, often in the form of dinners out with her and nearby Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Skip!

Salton Sea

The final two days had me taking a trip to the Salton Sea, home of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. As all the guidebooks tell you, you'd better be prepared for some extreme conditions if you venture to this inland sea in summer.

The Salton Sea provides a respite for birds traveling across the deserts of Mexico, California and Arizona and also serves as nesting and year round home for other species. The book A Birder's Guide to Southern California gave me a good idea for birds to expect and provided continued fantastic directions.

My plan was to arrive at the Sea about three hours before sunset to take advantage of the 'cooler' part of the day, then stay overnight in a nearby town and bird from dawn to 9 am the next day. The plan worked pretty well although the sun set earlier than expected and there was much less water than I pictured -- which isn't surprising in hindsight -- so I missed one of the better places for Snowy Plover. Oh well!
With the water receding from evaporation, hundreds of fish are left to bake and rot like the mudflats on which they took their last breath. I was greeted with this environment upon arrival from Highway 10 from the north.

I did manage to find three life birds in the first five minutes in GAMBEL'S QUAIL, LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER, and LESSER NIGHTHAWK (shown below) which I found sitting out on an exposed tree limb.

Shortly thereafter I saw a dozen nighthawks flying overhead just before dusk (interestingly Common Nighthawk behavior).
Venturing along a 'canal' out to the shore there were plenty of rails calling from the marshes at dusk but no rarities.
I found a motel in nearby Brawley making access to other birding areas easy the following day when I was up and out before dawn. I heard a GREAT HORNED OWL calling when I arrived at the rodeo just south of Main St. in Brawley.
The rising sun made evident several quail, a beautiful CACTUS WREN, and BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER. Off in search of Crissal Thrasher which I missed I decided to forgo finding a Gila Woodpecker.

I was able to find just about everything that was listed in the bird finding book (see full list below), including ROADRUNNER, BURROWING OWLS (pictured right) which provided fantastic photo ops and YELLOW-FOOTED GULL out at (LOCATION). The Salton Sea is the only place in the US where this gull can be regularly found.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park proved not to be an ideal place to find birds in early afternoon in August. Not sure why. It was only 112 degrees -- a dry heat of course.
The desert scape was absolutely gorgeous and there appeared to be evidence of an ancient sea north of Borrego Springs.
I looked for but was not successful in finding LeConte's Thrasher.

Leaving the desert I traveled up into the mountains to CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST where an adult RED-SHOULDERED HAWK flew just over my car giving me a perfect view of its streaked red breast and deeply banded tail.

Searching the higher elevation oak and pine areas for the nomadic Lawrence's Goldfinch I found a group of PYGMY NUTHATCHES that I missed in Yosemite! Despite a strong desire to see a Bell's Vireo it had been a great day and I decided that the vireo would have to wait for a future trip.

I headed back over to San Diego to Kelly's and had a great Vietnamese meal complete with Thai tea and BOBA which apparently completed my decades-long preparation and assimilation as an Asian. In fact, when Kelly and I were both eating with chopsticks and the waiter only asked Kelly if she needed a fork I knew I had arrived (sorry, I had to tell that one!). Just in time to fly back to the East coast.

Thanks to everyone who helped me have another wonderful visit to sunny Southern California!!

[** denotes Life Bird (i.e. first time I ever saw bird in wild)]


Common Poorwill **
Black-chinned Hum **
Wrentit **
Bewick's Wren **
Rufous-crowned Sparrow **
Lark Sparrow**

Full O.C. list not given -- only highlights

Pelagic Cormorant **
Cinnamon Teal **
Peregrine Falcon (juvenile)
American Kestrel
Red-necked Phalarope **
Western Sandpiper **
Wandering Tattler **
Say's Phoebe **
Nuttall's Woodpecker **
Oak Titmouse **
Sage Sparrow **

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Heermann's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Royal Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Black SkimmerAnna's Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Western Scrub-Jay


American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-heron
White-faced Ibis **
Cinnamon Teal
Red-breasted Merganser
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Prairie Falcon **
Gambel's Quail **
Clapper Rail
Common Moorhen
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Blacknecked Stilt
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Red-necked Phalarope
Ring-billed Gull
Yellow-footed Gull **
Black Tern
Caspian Tern
Gull-billed Tern **
Forster's Tern
Black Skimmer
Rock Dove
White-winged Dove **
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-dove **
Common Ground-dove **
Greater Roadrunner **
Great Horned Owl
Burrowing Owl **
Lesser Nighthawk **
Ladder-backed Woodpecker **
Black Phoebe
Brown-crested Flycatcher **
Loggerhead Shike **
Common Raven
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Verdin **
Marsh Wren
Cactus Wren**
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher **
European Starling
Common Yellowthroat
Abert's Towhee **
Western Meadowlark **
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird **
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow


Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Pygmy Nuthatch **

Pre-trip Bird Wish List
[+ denotes most wanted birds]

Pelagic Cormorant
White-faced ibis +
Nutall's Woodpecker+
Oak Titmouse +
Bewick's Wren +
Western Meadowlark

Black Oystercatcher
Flammulated Owl +
Western Screech
Ash-throated Fc
Bell's Vireo
Western Tanager +

A Birder's Guide to Southern California

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