California Specialties Apr 14—22, 2007
Posted by Brad Schram
Our eleventh consecutive California Specialties tour surprised us all with its unseasonably cold weather?by Southern California standards. Coats and sweatshirts received more use than normal, as did our rain gear. Travel through Southern California’s multiple habitat types covered 1,239 road miles, plus a boat trip to Santa Cruz Island. Notwithstanding the sometimes inclement weather, and a general lack of migrants coincident with the chill conditions and occasional rain, our tour provided many excellent bird adventures and a list of 225 species in seven days of birding.
Our first morning, at San Dieguito River Park next to Lake Hodges in interior San Diego County, set the tone. We had just seen our second California Gnatcatcher at close range when we were lashed by a sudden downpour! Retreat to the van one-half-mile distant was just far enough for the rain to stop on arrival. Casually checking a flock of Lesser Goldfinches produced a pair of Lawrence’s Goldfinches about 20 yards from the van?a first for the tour at this location.
As the first morning brightened, we birded southern San Diego Bay where an immature Peregrine Falcon harassed an American Avocet right in front of us until the falcon’s persistence allowed it to grasp the exhausted avocet when it surfaced. The sight of the falcon flying off low over the water with its heavy kill, harassed by nearby gulls, will not soon be forgotten. Actually, the first day’s drama predicted future events.
Day two took us through San Diego County’s Laguna Mountains on the way to the Anza-Borrego Desert and, ultimately, Brawley south of the Salton Sea. One could say we were surprised by the two inches of fresh snow on the ground in the Laguna Mountains, under fog! Breaking out of the fog and snow just north of the summit, our stop at a desert overlook also produced the tour’s only Hermit Warbler, a male, close overhead in a pine. Travel during spring migration tends to provide delightful surprises; this encounter qualified. A six species flock of fairly tame migrant warblers in a garden in front of a sandwich shop in Julian also surprised and delighted us.
Days three and four around the Salton Sea and northward travel, with a stop at Morongo Valley, were remarkably productive. Two wintering first-year Yellow-footed Gulls at Obsidian Butte in the sea’s southeast corner were most welcome. A mass of many hundreds of American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts attended by dowitchers (predominantly Long-billed) and 55 Stilt Sandpipers caused us all to marvel at the beauty of the spectacle. For all its smell and discomfort, the Salton Sea is capable of astonishing beauty. Remarkably, the sea did not even provide the normal heat-related discomfort!
Morongo Valley’s highlights were in character with its normally excellent birding. An adult Golden Eagle overhead, being harassed by a Common Raven, allowed lingering views as it sailed toward the mountains, dodging agilely and occasionally barrel-rolling away from the raven’s attack. A roosting Barn Owl posed tirelessly, and a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers provoked superlatives. Outstanding multiple looks at migrant Hammond’s and Gray flycatchers, followed by good looks at a migrant Plumbeous Vireo?scarce in California away from its eastern desert mountain breeding areas?were enjoyed by all. Travel north to Maricopa through San Gorgonio Pass in a high gale will not be forgotten.
The almost instantly responsive Le Conte’s Thrasher near Maricopa that evening was not to be forgotten as well! This is the eleventh consecutive year that this tour has seen Le Conte’s Thrasher on this same territory. It remains a highlight of each California Specialties tour.
Day five started on Cerro Noroeste Road, traveling to Mount Pinos. Although we were apprehensive about the cold facing us, the weather proved moderate and cooperative on the mountain. Mil Potrero Campground produced smashing scope looks at nearby Red-breasted Sapsucker and White-headed Woodpecker. It is not possible to see the bird any better short of holding one in the hand?we were almost speechless at their beauty and cooperativeness. It was a good thing, actually, because the mountain above was unusually quiet for the date.
On leaving the Mount Pinos region, returning along the spine of Cerro Noroeste Road at about 4,000 feet altitude, we stopped to glass a distant ridge in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge?some 12,000 acres of high grassland set aside in the 80s as past and future California Condor foraging range. To our astonishment and delight we found three California Condors surrounding a carcass, in turn surrounded by a squadron of Common Ravens. The ravens appeared insignificant in size when compared to the hulking bulk of Gymnogyps! As we watched the scene leisurely, if excitedly, a condor would tire of a raven’s prodding and jump and flap at it and its friends in a flurry of immense wings that cleared the immediate vicinity. Likewise, when a young condor attempted to pre-empt the dominant adult’s meal it also received the leaping, wing-flailing treatment. A truly amazing spectacle for spellbound but appreciative observers. On eating its fill the adult bird crow-hopped downhill a short distance and launched over the steep intervening canyon. Its magnificent wingspread, steady flight, and overall bulk were impressive. Fortuitously, the bird flew across a canyon toward us, ultimately coming close enough for us to see its orange head and the white line above the secondary feathers on its dorsal side through our binoculars. The view through the scope was extraordinary.
We drove toward the coast, leaving two birds on the carcass while occasionally seeing the adult above the ridge to our east. Wild California spread around us for scores of miles, with only the occasional ranch house in sight. Memorable is the word, truly memorable.
Our last two days were spent seldom out of sight of the Pacific. Our Shell Beach motel produced nearly as much dramatic action as anywhere else on the trip! A pair of Peregrine Falcons has had their eyrie within a quarter-mile of the motel for many years, hunting the shorebirds and guillemots below, as well as the grassland birds, swifts, and swallows also nearby for the taking. As we stood on the lawn between the motel complex and the cliff, a hunting Peregrine dove at and struck a Rock Pigeon nearby, but only a glancing blow. The pigeon tumbled away and the falcon returned to station high overhead. It next dove past us so close we could hear the wind in its feathers, on its way to striking a White-throated Swift. This was also a glancing blow, the swift continuing on minus a few feathers. We finally left the falcon high overhead, waiting. A nesting Allen’s Hummingbird and the only migrant Western Tanagers of the trip awaited us at Oceano nearby, as did tame Yellow-billed Magpies at a rural Santa Barbara county park.
The final day’s trip to Santa Cruz Island produced little in the way of pelagic birds, the offshore winds of the day pushing most pelagics out to sea. The Island Scrub-Jay however, endemic to Santa Cruz Island, became wonderfully cooperative with time as all who wished burned ones and zeros in their digital cameras. Endemic subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Rufous-crowned and Song sparrows also showed nicely on the island. After much searching, our return trip across the Santa Barbara Channel encountered a pair of Xantus’s Murrelets on the water, staying put for all to admire.
California’s specialty birds exhibit much of interest in their affinities and unique adaptations to our far coast. None are perhaps more famous than the California Condor. All agreed that the sight of an adult condor soaring over an uninhabited canyon on Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge underscored the richness of the area while providing one of the most dramatic events possible for any birding trip.