Winter Southern California Jan 24—29, 2010
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
It's tough to beat winter birding in Southern California. You've got great weather, fantastic scenery, and tons of birds. Coastal Southern California harbors a tremendous number of birds in the winter; the San Diego Christmas Bird Count is always near the top in the nation, and San Diego is where this tour begins. After birding the coast we head inland through the mountains, into the desert, and finally to the oasis of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea. The diversity of birds and habitats is mind-boggling for such a short trip. This year we were very successful, logging 192 species of birds, a new tour record.
Like the other corners of the ABA area, Southern California is home to many birds that can't easily be found elsewhere, so any tour to this area must emphasize seeing as many of these target birds as possible. In this department we did quite well. The challenge with this tour is finding a way to see as many target birds as possible while saving time to chase the rarities that are so often in this area in winter.
We spent our first two days scouring the coastal lowlands and foothills with great success. We found a long list of birds highlighted by such things as a Prairie Falcon perched on a roadside rock at the same spot where we scoped a perched Ferruginous Hawk and watched a flock of gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds foraging over the grass. At another stop we were serenaded by multiple California Thrashers posing for scope views while a California Gnatcatcher darted furtively from bush to bush. Much more cooperative than the gnatcatcher was the normally skulky Wrentit that gave us some great open views at close range. Another denizen of the chaparral that gave us uncommonly good views was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow that sat in the scope for several minutes. Tricolored Blackbirds were almost too easy as they competed with a crazed flock of American Coots for bread crumbs at a local park. At Mission Gorge a cheeky Canyon Wren had to almost land at our feet to tear our attention away from the Nuttall's Woodpecker that was posing in the scope.
Along the immediate coast we saw huge numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds. We found a Cackling Goose of the race minima, the true Cackling Goose, feeding on a mudflat with hundreds of shorebirds including Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Red Knot, and Western Sandpiper. Elsewhere on the shore and in the water, we found a big flock of Black Skimmers; a mixed flock of gulls including Western, California, and Heermann's; and Western and Clark's grebes swimming side by side. Along the rocky coast we found Brandt's Cormorants, Pelagic Cormorants, Black Turnstones, and Surfbirds, while offshore we scoped Pacific and Red-throated loons. Still farther out we were able to scope Black-vented Shearwaters as they flew quickly across the water's surface. Later, in the southwesternmost city of Imperial Beach, we visited a well-planted yard that held an adult male Allen's Hummingbird, as well as Bullock's, Baltimore, and Orchard orioles. Along the shore of San Diego Bay we spotted the resident Belding's subspecies of Savannah Sparrow.
On day three we headed into the Mountains of San Diego where we found Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, Oak Titmouse, Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, and Western Bluebird. The highlight was to come later that day when we found not one, but four Lewis's Woodpeckers right along the road. We watched them for about 15 minutes, getting stunning scope views of their pink bellies, cherry-red cheeks, and glossy green wings. Scope views of a perched Golden Eagle were also memorable, but soon we had to leave the mountains and drop all the way down to the desert floor. In fact, by the time we stopped dropping down we were more than 200 feet below sea level!
Our final day-and-a-half was spent birding the unique and totally bizarre Salton Sea. We found gulls and shorebirds on barnacle beaches, freshwater ponds full of ducks, and fields full of thousands of Snow and Ross's geese and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes. The sheer number of birds in this area was truly awe-inspiring. We saw massive flocks of Brewer's, Red-winged, and Yellow-headed blackbirds; flocks of hundreds of Long-billed Curlews looking like dust clouds on the horizon; and a shoreline turned white by over 10,000 Ring-billed Gulls. And while the spectacle of huge numbers of birds is worth seeing in itself, there are a couple of birds in particular that we make a special effort to find. First priority always goes to the Yellow-footed Gull. This species is endemic to the shores of the Sea of Cortez, but each year small numbers wander up to the Salton Sea. This is the only place where one can hope to add it to one's ABA list. It took a couple of hours of searching a few choice spots, but we eventually found three loafing on some rocks with a flock of Brown Pelicans (also wanderers from the Sea of Cortez).
It took us much longer to find the other target bird of the area, the Mountain Plover. This declining species breeds on the largely inaccessible short-grass prairies of the high western plains, and the vast majority of the population winters in the Imperial Valley. It took us until the very end of the day to find a flock, but when we did we were treated to excellent views. We saw great evidence of the effectiveness of their camouflage as they repeatedly disappeared in plain sight in a bare dirt field. Other birds we saw during our time at "the sea" included Gambel's Quail, White-faced Ibis, Inca Dove, Greater Roadrunner, several Burrowing Owls (voted favorite bird of the trip), Gila Woodpecker, and Abert's Towhee. All in all, it was a fantastic trip with great weather and phenomenal birding.