Winter Southern California Jan 21—26, 2008

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Southern California offers what is arguably some of the best winter birding in the United States. This was very evident on our recent Winter California tour.

Our trip started in San Diego, where we had two full days to scour the variety of habitats from coastal chaparral to rocky shorelines to bird-covered estuaries. We began north of San Diego, searching out the endangered California Gnatcatcher. A stroll through the chaparral here yielded not only great views of this highly sought species, but also scope studies of a pair of Nuttall's Woodpeckers, a California Thrasher at about 15 feet, and a very cooperative Wrentit. Later in the morning we birded the scenic shoreline of La Jolla, which produced three Wandering Tattlers, a Black Turnstone, Pelagic Cormorant, Red-throated Loon, many stunning Heermann's Gulls, and about 50 distant Black-vented Shearwaters feeding offshore. After lunch we visited various areas around Mission Bay and saw a great variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and larids including Brant, stunning Cinnamon Teal, 157 Black Skimmers in one flock, and a locally rare Glaucous-winged Gull.

The next day we visited inland areas east of San Diego in the morning. At Mission Gorge, we had another very cooperative California Gnatcatcher, lengthy views of a Golden-crowned Sparrow, and a responsive pair of Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Nearby Santee Lakes produced a stunning Lewis's Woodpecker, scope views of White-tailed Kite, numerous Cassin's Kingbirds, and about 100 White-throated Swifts low over the ponds. The afternoon was spent around San Diego Bay. Chula Vista yielded two male Eurasian Wigeon, another Glaucous-winged Gull, and many close Brant. Sites in and around Imperial Beach had Western and Clark's grebes side by side and three very rare Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, among others.

On our third day we headed east through the Laguna Mountains. Just before arriving at our first birding area we were met by a somewhat unexpected snowstorm! Despite the conditions, we got out and started birding the campground at Paso Picacho. Quickly we tallied Mountain Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, a wonderfully cute cluster of Pygmy Nuthatches, numerous Acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, and Steller's Jays. Our real target here, however, was the one remaining White-headed Woodpecker that had been seen sporadically at this spot. After some searching we found the woodpecker feeding in a large cedar. Eventually we walked to within 15 feet of the bird as it fed unconcernedly over our heads. This species proved to be the favorite bird of the tour! Side by side studies of Tricolored and Red-winged blackbirds were a real treat at lunchtime. Other highlights for the area included two wonderful Ferruginous Hawks, several Red-shouldered Hawks, and a flock of Purple Finches. Late in the afternoon we descended down from over 4,000 feet elevation to below sea level at the Salton Sea. Daylight was running out, but we had time for a quick stop at Unit 1 of the refuge. Thousands of white geese were feeding along the roadside, providing us with excellent comparative views of Snow and Ross's. A group of Sandhill Cranes flew by, as did hundreds of White-faced Ibis. The real star of the afternoon show, however, was a Virginia Rail in full view for several minutes about 20 feet away.

Our last full day was spent at various points in and around the Salton Sea itself. A rare Lesser Black-backed Gull, three "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrows, six Burrowing Owls, two more Ferruginous Hawks, a Peregrine Falcon, and several Greater Roadrunners were among our many nice finds. Despite no Yellow-footed Gulls (always the premier target here) having been reliably reported for over three weeks at the sea, a member of our group, Joe, spotted a full adult well out on the rocks from the Red Hill area. We were elated at our good luck! We briefly revisited the Unit 1 area and were rewarded with a rarely seen blue morph of the Ross's Goose. The remainder of the afternoon was devoted to the often time-consuming search for Mountain Plovers; after much searching and with daylight fading, we located a burnt field with 14 and enjoyed great scope studies!

In all, we tallied over 170 species including many highly sought regional specialties and several unexpected rarities. This tour is a must for beating the midwinter doldrums in much of the snowbound United States.