Winter Southern California Jan 25—30, 2009
Posted by Barry Zimmer
Few areas of the United States support the diversity of bird life in winter as does southern California. With hordes of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls along the coast to resident chaparral specialties to montane species to the avian spectacle of the Salton Sea, our winter California tour offers an amazing array of birds. This was certainly evident on our 2009 trip.
We began with two days in the San Diego area. Our first stop, in the chaparral belt, yielded a great variety and excellent quality. A pair of generally skulky Wrentits provided wonderful views, as did a California Thrasher that sang from the top of a manzanita less than 20 feet away. Our primary target, the endangered California Gnatcatcher, put on a show with a pair actively foraging right next to the trail. Bewick's Wren, Bushtit, Western Scrub-Jay, and California Towhee followed, and a responsive male Nuttall's Woodpecker topped things off. The remainder of the day was spent along the coast where highlights included Brant; Brandt's and Pelagic cormorants; Wandering Tattler; Long-billed Curlew; Heermann's (perhaps the prettiest of all gulls), Mew, and Thayer's gulls; Black Skimmer; Cassin's Kingbird; and Tricolored Blackbird. Late in the afternoon we visited a spot where a very rare "Mangrove" Yellow Warbler (picture a regular Yellow Warbler with a chestnut red head!) had been found. Within a few moments we spotted the bird in a low eucalyptus and had prolonged scope views from about 30 feet! This was a life subspecies (some authors consider it a full species) in the United States for everyone in the group including me!
Our second day in San Diego was spent around San Diego Bay, Imperial Beach, and Point Loma. We started out the morning with 44 Snowy Plovers in view at once, followed quickly by Black and Ruddy turnstones and Surfbirds on the nearby jetty. A male Eurasian Wigeon (a rarity which has become virtually annual on our tours here), a vagrant Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a rare Green-tailed Towhee followed, but the real highlight of the morning was our up-close-and-personal experience with a Clapper Rail literally two feet away! The afternoon produced some distant Black-vented Shearwaters offshore, stunning Wood Ducks, White-throated Swifts, more close encounters with California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, and Fox Sparrow among others.
On our third morning we headed eastward to the Laguna Mountains where an entirely different set of birds awaited us. Near Pine Valley we enjoyed Mountain Chickadee and Oak Titmouse at close range. Nearby Cuyamaca State Park produced stunning views of Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, Brown Creeper, Acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, and Western Bluebird. In the mid-afternoon we descended toward the Salton Sea. We had about an hour to spend at an area called Unit 1 on the southern end of the sea. Here we found two Tundra Swans, Ross's and Snow geese by the thousands, thousands of White-faced Ibis, and 200 or so Sandhill Cranes; we also enjoyed good views of both Sora and Virginia rails, a flock of very uncommon Stilt Sandpipers, and nice studies of Abert's Towhee.
Our last full day was spent at various locations in and around the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This area hosts an impressive quantity of birds each winter with waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls numbering into the countless thousands of individuals. Our two prime targets were the endangered Mountain Plover and the highly sought Yellow-footed Gull (found nowhere else in the United States). Each can be difficult to find, and the pursuit of them often takes the entire day. We were blessed with good luck, however, and found a flock of 82 Mountain Plovers in a burnt field within the first hour of the day. After soaking up lengthy scope views, we headed toward Red Hill to begin looking for the gull. On the way we stopped for close studies of Burrowing Owls and a Prairie Falcon. At our first check of the seashore near Red Hill we spotted both an adult and a first year Yellow-footed Gull within minutes. By 9 a.m. we had seen both targets! During the rest of the day we scoured the shoreline and nearby fields and had Greater White-fronted and Cackling geese (both locally rare); Glaucous-winged and Thayer's gulls (both rare here); a field with 400+ Long-billed Curlews; great looks at Common Ground-Dove; five Greater Roadrunners; Eared, Western, and Clark's grebes; and three Peregrine Falcons among the more notables.
In all we totaled nearly 170 species of birds in our four days of birding and enjoyed generally very good weather (while much of the country suffered through cold and snow). In combination with our Winter Southern Arizona tour (these two tours run back-to-back by design), we tallied an impressive 240 species (approaching 40% of the regularly occurring birds of North America). As an added bonus, on the transfer drive in between the two tours we saw an adult Golden Eagle and had great views of Le Conte's Thrasher!