Winter Southern California Jan 23—28, 2011
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Winter birding in Southern California is great for many reasons. The weather is not the least of these reasons, and with much of the rest of the country covered in snow during our tour, this point was not lost on the group. Birders are not the only ones who know that "SoCal" is a great place to be in the winter; the birds are well aware of this too! In just four days of birding we were able to tally over 180 species of birds, and many of them in rather large numbers.
Our trip began in coastal San Diego County where we visited a number of different habitats including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, freshwater marsh, saltwater marsh, mudflat, rocky coast, riparian woodland, grassland, and various man-made park habitats. This resulted in quite a diversity of birds, in fact, over 100 species on each of our first two days. Highlights on the coast included handsome drake Eurasian Wigeons, a Thick-billed Kingbird (a rare visitor from Mexico), Surfbirds and Wandering Tattler on the rocky shores, a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher, a huge flock of Black Skimmers, and obliging Anna's Hummingbirds. We had California Thrashers and California Gnatcatchers along with Wrentits and Bushtits out in the coastal sage scrub. We enjoyed stunning scenes of diversity along the San Diego and Sweetwater rivers where all types of ducks, herons, gulls, and sandpipers foraged almost at our feet. And in the evenings we enjoyed wonderful food with waterfront views of downtown San Diego.
On our third day we headed east. Moving up into the mountains, our initial roadside stops produced Band-tailed Pigeons, California Quail, Lark Sparrow, Oak Titmouse, and Mountain Chickadee. Moving higher into the conifer zone we found Steller's Jays, Hairy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon form), the "Thick-billed" form of Fox Sparrow, Western Bluebirds, and the eventual favorite bird of the trip, Pygmy Nuthatch. We had many good looks at these spritely little birds, but our first encounter, when two almost landed on Barry's head, really stole the show. Acorn Woodpeckers were everywhere and we saw several of their granary trees. Our lunch stop produced close views of Tricolored Blackbird, a declining species officially listed as a state species of special concern. A quick stop in the quaint little mountain town of Julian produced Pine Siskins at a feeder, but more importantly, apple crumb and strawberry rhubarb pies that we would devour at lunch the next day.
As we dropped out of the mountains, we very quickly transitioned into the desert habitat of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Here we located Loggerhead Shrike, Phainopeplas, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Verdin before dropping further down into the Salton Sink. As we entered the agricultural areas of the Imperial Valley, we saw a dramatic change in the amount of bird life visible from the road. Suddenly there were flocks of birds in the air and on the ground. As we came within sight of the Salton Sea, we noticed a thin white line on the horizon that eventually we could make out as a huge flock of American White Pelicans. At the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge we were totally overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of birds. There were thousands of white geese giving us good comparisons of Ross's and Snow. We saw and heard the calls of hundreds of Sandhill Cranes as they danced and jousted in a fallow field. Enormous flocks of blackbirds poured by as we tried to pick out the odd Yellow-heads from the masses. All the while many thousands of ducks, gulls, and shorebirds sat on the ponds before us, almost unnoticed, as we listened to Yuma Clapper Rails sounding off in the marsh.
Our final day of birding found us exploring the southeastern corner of the Salton Sea and the adjacent agricultural lands. Though we were thwarted in our attempt to locate a lingering Yellow-footed Gull, we enjoyed the truly otherworldly sights that this area offers, not to mention a whole ton of great birds! Thayer's, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged gulls were all seen amongst the many thousands of Ring-billed, California, and Herring gulls. Snowy Plover, Stilt Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs were all nice finds among the prodigious shorebird flocks. A male Common Goldeneye added some class to the proceedings, and Barry's bountiful picnic was the icing on the cake.
Our return to San Diego took us through the bizarre and striking boulder-strewn landscape of the In-ko-pah Mountains. These rocky, barren hills are quite a contrast to the forested mountain ranges of the eastern U.S. and always pique the group's curiosity. But all too soon we were back in San Diego and saying our goodbyes at the airport. The trip was a short one, but certainly the memories will be long-lasting.