California Specialties Apr 25—May 03, 2009
Posted by Jeri Langham
After 38 years of teaching biology at California State University, I was ready to do whatever I desired on my first free spring since starting kindergarten. Then I received a phone call from Victor Emanuel. Would I like to take over the California Specialties tour in late April? Before I began leading tours for VENT 24 years ago, I chased vagrant birds to all corners of California. However, once I became a part-time VENT leader on top of full-time university teaching, there was no extra time. In the last two decades, I forgot how wonderfully diverse the southern California ecosystems are, and thus what a great adventure they would provide. Now, I cannot wait to lead this tour again.
An enticing example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found by looking at our trip list, and also reading a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all of the participants.
April 26: Mission Trails Regional Park, San Elijo Lagoon/Mission Bay's San Diego River Mouth & Sunset Cliffs—We began our birding at a loop trail just before reaching the Visitor Center at Mission Trails Regional Park. Our target birds here were California Gnatcatcher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Both gave us superb views, but we also enjoyed our first looks at California Towhee, a distant California Thrasher, Lesser Goldfinches, White-throated Swifts, Bushtits, and a knockout male Anna's Hummingbird whose red colors dazzled us when it turned its head just right. After a quick visit to the Visitor Center, we began birding the one-way Father Junipero Serra Trail road, stopping at pullouts to see what was in the willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores below us along the creek. We could not have had a better morning thanks to displaying Nuttall's Woodpecker, Bell's Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, Lazuli Bunting, Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Hermit, Orange-crowned, Yellow, and Wilson's warblers. Many of these were at one single stop where a large pool of water was being used to bathe. A friendly local birder showed us a nest with three young Red-tailed Hawks on the cliff wall. Before leaving this great location, we added Blue Grosbeaks near the Brown-headed Cowbird trap that contained several cowbird pairs. Due to successful cowbird trapping here, the Least Bell's Vireo is making a comeback.
San Elijo Lagoon was only a 25-minute drive up the coast. We walked the southern trail that begins at the end of Los Rios Road. A singing Yellow-breasted Chat gave us walkaway scope views that were superb. But the important addition here was the Allen's Hummingbird that caught Ruth up to her husband Ray at 697 species for North America. We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center on the north side and headed back to our hotel for lunch and a siesta. The morning's adventure brought us 60 species.
At 2 p.m. we headed out for the San Diego River Mouth near Seaworld in Mission Bay. It was an afternoon of viewing shorebirds, gulls, terns, and others on exposed mudflats with Anne's and my scopes. We kept finding one beauty after another: a late Glaucous-winged and several early Heermann's gulls mixed with California and Western gulls; Royal (only one), Caspian, Elegant, and Forster's terns; Black Skimmers; several Little Blue Herons; and a great array of shorebirds, with Snowy Plover being my highlight. Watching two photographers crawling down in the mud while photographing was also a treat. From Robb Field on the south side of the river, we headed to Sunset Cliffs. Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone were the best birds, with super looks at Brandt's Cormorants.
April 29: Maricopa/Taft to Mount Pinos and Pismo Beach—On the way back from breakfast at Taft, we took Petroleum Club Road and almost immediately saw the desert race (canescens) of Sage Sparrow. We had seen the coastal race near Kitchen Creek Road on the 27th, so we now have a "bank" bird in case they get split in the future. I pulled off the road to let a faster car pass and was rewarded by a Le Conte's Thrasher singing and perching for all to see. Back in Maricopa, we had sandwiches made at Subway for our lunch on Mount Pinos, and we were off to a lifer road for me.
We climbed slowly up the winding Cerro Noroeste road through open grasslands until reaching the pinyon-pine and juniper-covered slopes near a famous place called "THE SIGN" where birders often looked for California Condors before they were all captured for the breeding program. As we stood there, an adult Golden Eagle flew over us. On a little side road farther up, we found a Gray Flycatcher, and near an open area with buildings, added another five species to the morning's list. A pit stop just past the closed Mill Potrero Campground added a nesting Pygmy Nuthatch pair and another cavity with Western Bluebirds. They really harassed a western gray squirrel that attempted to climb up their dead tree. Linette liked the call of Olive-sided Flycatcher, "Quick, three beers," and we all had a ball with the large group of birds that flew into my owl calls at a stop just up the road from the turnoff to Mount Pinos. Most enjoyed was probably the first of about seven White-headed Woodpeckers we would encounter today. One of my favorite stops was the one in which a Green-tailed Towhee flew to within three feet of me and kept flicking up one of its wings at me. The Thick-billed race of Fox Sparrow cooperated at this same stop. It is also a "bank bird" since Fox Sparrows will be split into at least four species in the near future. I was bummed to discover that the dirt road up to the Mount Pinos overlook is closed and now requires walking in two miles at 8,000-foot elevation. We started back downhill and found a protected spot for lunch.
Afterwards, it seemed like every place we stopped brought in new trip birds: Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red Crossbill, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Cassin's Finch, and more. A pair of Mountain Quail delighted us by walking across the road in front of the van. Maybe the biggest surprise was Ed's comment about a large bird flying behind us. We stopped to check, and a California Condor flew right over our heads. As we celebrated, another two came down the same flight line…THREE of them and right overhead…WOW. This gave me the energy to drive the next two-and-a-half hours through Cayuma Valley to the coast and up to our wonderful hotel in Pismo Beach. Several added new species from their balconies while waiting for our dinner at a fancy restaurant owned by the hotel. We were delighted to have Brad Schram join us for dinner so you could meet the man that led this tour for 12 years and also wrote the wonderful, A Birder's Guide to Southern California, whose directions we have been following since the beginning of the tour. This wonderful day added 26 new species to our list.
May 2: Pelagic trip to Prisoner's Cove on Santa Cruz Island—The trip out was very successful with several pairs of Xantus's Murrelets (#700 for both Ray and Ruth), Northern Fulmars, Cassin's Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters, Sabine's Gulls, and over a hundred Red-necked Phalaropes. One of my favorite events was seeing a young humpback whale jumping out of the water while its mother kept watch. On arrival at Prisoner's Cove, we took over a picnic table, had our lunch, and listened to Katie and Dee Dee's introduction and rules. Anne found an Island Scrub-Jay while we were still using the facilities…it was almost too easy. Ray, Ruth, and Julia stayed back while the rest of us followed Katie on the trail up into The Nature Conservancy property. It was a very nice walk with dozens of Orange-crowned Warblers and many other species. The best was finally getting to see a Hutton's Vireo after being teased by two who sang, but never showed themselves yesterday. The trip back across the Santa Barbara Channel on our catamaran was much smoother. Ed finally got a good look at his lifer Xantus's Murrelets, we added a Black-vented Shearwater, and saw many more of the same species seen on the way out. We also had additional encounters with humpback whales. It was a great way to end the tour.