California Specialties Apr 24—May 03, 2010

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

Related Trips

When I retired from California State University in May 2008, 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 every spring.

An enticing example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found by downloading my Trip List from the VENT web site, and also reading a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all the tour participants:

We began our birding at Deerfield Pumphouse loop trail just before reaching the Visitor Center at Mission Trails Regional Park near San Diego. Our target birds were California Gnatcatcher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Both would give us superb views, but we also enjoyed great looks at California Towhee, California Thrasher, Lesser Goldfinches, Vaux's Swifts, Bewick's Wren, Bushtits, Blue Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting. We made a quick visit to the Visitor Center and then began driving 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, with Nuttall's Woodpecker; Bell's Vireo; Black-headed Grosbeak; Wrentit; Pacific-slope Flycatcher; Townsend's, Black-throated Gray, Hermit, and Orange-crowned warblers; Yellow-breasted Chat; Bullock's Oriole; and more. Many of these were at one single stop where a large pool of water was being used by birds to bathe. I showed you a nest up on the cliff with three young Red-tailed Hawks, as well as nests of a Costa's Hummingbird, Cooper's Hawk, and Phainopepla. Due to successful trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds, the Least Bell's Vireo is making a comeback in this canyon. From here we drove to the Chula Vista Marina mudflats. It was a great hour-and-a-half with shorebirds, gulls, terns, and other species. After lunch at our hotel followed by a siesta, we headed out for Point Loma, past the armed forces cemetery and down to the Pacific Coast, where we added three species of cormorants, Black Turnstone, Spotted Sandpiper, and Heermann's Gulls. Later at the San Diego River Mouth, near Seaworld in Mission Bay, we ended our wonderful first day by viewing shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks, and others on exposed mudflats.

After breakfast we headed straight to Salton Sea's Finney Lake where the grounds around the houses at the entrance produced Common Ground-Doves, Inca and White-winged doves, and Eurasian Collared-Dove. This was not a great morning for migrants, but we did add Western Tanager and a few warblers. Both Clark's and Western grebes were easy to find, and we even heard a rare and protected Yuma Clapper Rail. Lesser Nighthawk, Verdin, and Abert's Towhees were special area birds we saw well. Ramer Lake held fewer species, but gave us rookeries with hundreds of Cattle Egrets. The drive to Obsidian Butte was uneventful except for a Greater Roadrunner and several Burrowing Owls. There was a lot of activity here, but a phone call from Dan Brown (a photographer friend from Sacramento who was there to take bird photos) sent us south on the levees until we hit pay dirt with Lesser Black-backed Gull, Stilt Sandpipers, a Lesser Yellowlegs, and our first Wilson's Phalaropes. We had lunch at Bobby D's Pizza Plus in Niland and then headed to the Red Hill Boat Launch Jetty, which was nothing less than incredible. There were literally thousands of birds and we kept adding new ones to our list. The breeding Black Terns seemed to be the highlight for Bonnie, but wow, what a spectacle! Scott could hardly control himself, and Dale spotted the Snowy Plover we were trying to locate. Red Hill brought many more species to see, but not the Yellow-footed Gull we wanted most. We returned for one last look at Finney Lake and when leaving saw a round-tailed ground-squirrel.

After picking up Gila Woodpecker and Cactus Wren in Brawley, we headed to Ramer Lake, where I saw Crissal Thrasher last year. On the way, I heard a Ladder-backed Woodpecker in a thick clump near the lake. We got out to call it in and while doing that, a Crissal Thrasher popped up on a dead stick at the top of the huge clump. We could not believe the luck we were having today—four new birds in under an hour! This gave us time to head back to Obsidian Dome and take the levee roads south from there. The winds were terrible, with white caps on the sea, but we were still able to see thousands of birds. We had some great shorebirds, but two gulls were the superstars: a Vega Herring Gull and a 1–2 year-old Yellow-footed Gull, one of our target birds.

I was totally amazed to find Mt. Pinos' pine and spruce trees all covered in snow, and several inches on the ground. An unseasonal storm had created a winter wonderland. When I stopped and tried my owl calls, the quiet forest would slowly fill with Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, and others coming in to my calls. However, the cold had prevented the usual company of warblers, vireos, and other species from joining the throng… it was very different from last year. However, we did pick up Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and about four White-headed Woodpeckers. We also had superb views of "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow and a migrating "Sooty" Fox Sparrow. Probably the happiest I have seen some of you was when the Mountain Quail allowed two encounters.

All of you met me at 6:15 a.m. for birding from the cliff side of the parking lot of our Pismo Beach hotel. We added Black Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Wandering Tattler, Surf Scoter, two species of loons, and dozens of Pigeon Guillemots. After our continental breakfast, we headed straight to Oceano and walked the trails along the lagoon riparian, adding Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Cassin's Vireo. Oso Flaco Lake was very good to us, with superb looks at Virginia Rail and Sora, as well as many birds we had seen elsewhere. A few of you saw an Allen's Hummingbird.

Our last day involved a successful catamaran cruise out to Santa Cruz Island to look for the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. Along the way, we picked up Xantu's Murrelet, Red and Red-necked phalaropes, three shearwater species, Rhinoceros and Cassin's auklets, and a Least Tern.

Please join me next April for a superb adventure that searches for birds in mountain forests, chaparral (California Gnatcatcher), grasslands, oak woodlands (Yellow-billed Magpie), deserts, riparian habitats, and incredibly diverse shorelines, as well as a pelagic trip to Santa Cruz Island for the endemic Island Scrub-Jay.