Winter Southern California Jan 24—29, 2010
Posted by Brad Schram
A week of violent storms in Southern California preceded our tour of San Diego County and the Imperial Valley, causing some anxiety about our possibilities. No worries! We traveled and birded in excellent weather, the air crisp and scrubbed, the landscapes luminous in saturated light. And such varied and dramatic landscapes! Our route stretched from the San Diego coast over the Cuyamaca Mountains, approximately 4,000 feet in altitude at snowy Paso Picacho Campground, through rugged Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to the Salton Sea at approximately 227 feet below sea level.
Leaving Mission Valley in San Diego the first morning, a full day's drive to the Salton Sea over the mountains, through the woods, to the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge Unit One at the Salton Sea we would go. Band-tailed Pigeons perched in live oak savanna along a rural road near the hamlet of Descanso, provoking our initial birding stop. Lark Sparrows and Mountain Bluebirds perched on barbed wire nearby while an Acorn Woodpecker clan cavorted about dead tree stubs. A Red-tailed Hawk flew over, a Northern Flicker called. We had truly begun.
Paso Picacho Campground was under a foot of new snow, the parking lot harboring treacherous black ice. Birding would be closer to the road than normal here, but we had wonderful looks at the resident mountain species, as well as two "Gray-headed" Juncos amongst the usual "Oregon" Dark-eyed Juncos resident here. A small flock of Pygmy Nuthatches came to a pine bough just above our heads, and Acorn Woodpeckers worked their granaries in the bark of close pines while a resplendent Steller's Jay scolded our presence. Male Tri-colored Blackbirds foraged close at hand amongst Brewer's at Lake Cuyamaca; a Red-shouldered Hawk perched nearby, and we soaked it all up.
Rolling grassland along Mesa Grande Road produced a wintering Vesper Sparrow and two perched Ferruginous Hawks; near Lake Henshaw we found the resident pair of Bald Eagles near their nest before lunch and the drive through the spectacularly picturesque Anza-Borrego Desert. Our birding day ended memorably at Unit One. One hundred Sandhill Cranes foraging at a small pond, then flying off ringing their evocative calls, thrilled the group—but the sight and sound of 20–30,000 Snow Geese erupting from their foraging nearby indelibly etched our memories with the spectacle. A dramatic ending to a dramatic day's travel.
A day exploring the south end of the Salton Sea and vicinity gave a taste of the region's remarkable birding possibilities. An unusually cooperative Crissal Thrasher near Finney Lake perched for our inspection; a Peregrine Falcon rested in a dead tree in the shallows, overlooking a smorgasbord of shorebirds and ducks; and two adult Yellow-footed Gulls at Obsidian Butte gave us wonderful looks at this very local species—a trip highlight. Our day ended with a vagrant Zone-tailed Hawk perched on a pole among residences in Brawley, calmly eating a Rock Pigeon, a Gila Woodpecker perched nearby.
Our third day began with prolonged looks at a Cactus Wren singing its rollicking song near the hotel in Brawley, and ended on San Diego Bay's Silver Strand in golden afternoon light. On our return to San Diego we drove south to Imperial Beach where we visited a residence fronted by flowering coral (Erythrina) trees. Although arriving at midday when birds were quiet, we managed to find two of the Bullock's Orioles known to be wintering there. A wintering male Allen's Hummingbird in the backyard is an unusual bird here at this time of year—and well-appreciated. All agreed that the stop of the day, however, was the observation deck along San Diego Bay's Silver Strand. The distinctive, very local, "Belding's" Savanna Sparrow inhabits Salicornia tidelands in Southern California—and one came to our feet at the deck. As we watched Brant, scoters, grebes, shorebirds, gulls, and terns with late afternoon sun at our backs, we witnessed an unusual event. A Parasitic Jaeger—rare inside the bay—chased Royal Terns repeatedly, seeking to cause their regurgitation of recently captured fish. The violent twisting and turning of the tail-chases brought exclamations from us—the few privileged to be watching.
Our last full day of birding took us to Mission Gorge chaparral, Mission Bay mudflats and jetties, La Jolla's rocky cliffs, and the San Diego River mouth's mudflats in the low afternoon light. A Wandering Tattler working the rocks at tide line in La Jolla was a pleasant surprise, while harbor seals loafed on a beach nearby and distant Pacific Loons worked the ocean surface offshore. Surfbirds at the Mission Bay jetty competed with overhead Osprey and a flock of Black Skimmers for our attention in the area. San Diego River's mud flats near the mouth held the day's highlight—a true spectacle of many hundreds of foraging and loafing birds of approximately 30 species. A gorgeous Little Blue Heron stalked just below our overlook; a Red-breasted Merganser flew in from downriver, landing near the heron, then frolicking about madly; both turnstone species foraged around stranded kelp; and curlews, dowitchers, godwits, yellowlegs and peeps, teal, diving ducks, Brant, gulls, and terns went busily about their business. A vagrant Laughing Gull flew in. A vagrant drake Eurasian Wigeon worked the river channel amongst its congeners. A memorable end indeed to our last full day of birding.
Before traveling to the airport we spent a couple of hours in the chaparral and riparian of Navajo Canyon and at Mission Dam in Mission Gorge, enjoying wintering sparrows and California's chaparral-adapted species. Then came the short drive to the airport, ending our tour. Come back to California—we just skimmed the surface; a beautiful surface it is.