California Specialties Apr 23—May 02, 2011
Posted by Jeri Langham
"CURLEW SANDPIPER! Yes, I am looking at a Curlew Sandpiper. Everybody get to the scope. Who can get a photo? We need a photo of this rare vagrant." I remembered then that I had a camera in the van and had recently learned to digiscope. On the way to the camera I called Paul Lehman and he spread the word. Jay was able to follow the bird when it flew and we got back on it. Guy McCaskie was the first San Diego birder to arrive and he parked in the red zone near my scope. Jay was nice enough to park Guy's car for him. Unfortunately, before others could arrive, the tide had risen so much that the bird had flown off to the distant off-limits saltworks. Fortunately, Paul and others got special permission to take two cars into the saltworks and they refound the bird just before dusk. It would never be seen away from there in the next few days.
Earlier that morning, we had begun our birding at the 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, Bewick's Wren, and Wrentits. 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, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Hermit, Yellow, and Orange-crowned warblers. Many of these were at one stop where a large pool of water was being used by birds to bathe. I showed you a nest with three young Red-tailed Hawks up on the cliff. Due to successful trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds here, 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…especially due to the above-described incident. It was tough to leave, but it was time to see if would could find the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, an incredible bird for California, present for a number of years at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge near the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center. Judy spotted it for us and we all enjoyed seeing the breeding plumes blowing in the wind.
The next morning, our first stop, Kitchen Creek Road, was superb with Lark and Black-chinned sparrows, Gray Vireo, Scott's Oriole, Canyon Wren, and many fly-by migrants including Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, and Black-headed Grosbeak. We were teased by Mountain Quail calls, but could not spot any. We stopped at Cibbett's Campground to see the birds at Tim and Cathy's feeders, where an Oak Titmouse took a peanut from my hand. Near the Border Patrol Station, we added "Bell's" Sage Sparrow. From there we headed to Jacumba, a small town near the Mexican border, which I had scouted two days earlier. We struck paydirt with two Harris's Hawks (a new species for this tour and a state bird for me). Tricolored Blackbirds were very cooperative, and we also managed to pick up Cactus Wren, Cassin's Vireo, and a few other species. We then headed back toward San Diego and turned up Sunrise Highway, much of which had been devastated by the 2003 fire. One excellent stop here allowed us to see a large Jeffrey pine riddled with Acorn Woodpecker holes, and a few were plugged with acorns. We all got to smell the bark and decide if it smelled like butterscotch, vanilla, or pineapple. The similar-looking ponderosa pine just smells like bark. We also added Western Bluebird and Mountain Chickadee. There were some tremendous views of the Anza-Borrego Desert from a pullout overlook.
At the small Santa Ysabel Mission, we added Say's Phoebe and, our target bird, Lawrence's Goldfinch. As we headed down into Anza-Borrego State Park, we picked up a White-winged Dove and Rock Wren in the canyon. The vegetation changed completely as we dropped into the desert. The area known for Crissal Thrasher produced none, but did produce Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Greater Roadrunner, and Gambel's Quail.
At Finney Lake the grounds around the houses had Common Ground-Doves, Inca and White-winged doves, Eurasian Collared-Doves, and the first Bronze Cowbird in 15 years of running this tour. This was a fairly good morning for migrants as we added a number of warblers to our list and both Dusky and Pacific-slope flycatchers. Both Clark's and Western grebes were easy to find. Verdin and Abert's Towhees were special area birds we saw. Ramer Lake was less impressive, but gave us hundreds of Cattle Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, and the best bird of all, a Neotropic Cormorant on a nest. The latter species was also new for this tour and only the second individual I have seen in California.
The Red Hill Boat Launch Jetty 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 a highlight, but wow, what a spectacle. I could hardly control myself! We had a nice Glaucous-winged Gull fly-by and discovered various species of ducks by really looking through the thousands of birds in the area. Red Hill brought us many more species, but not the Yellow-footed Gull we wanted most. None had been reported in the last five months. We stopped at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge for bathrooms, cold water, and to try for the roosting Barn Owl, but had to settle for owl pellets below the palm. Our day had produced an incredible 104 species seen plus 2 heard only.
The weather was sunny and cool in the desert near Taft with Sage Sparrows being very active, and all getting a look at Loggerhead Shrike and two fly-by Long-billed Curlews. Scott spotted a Le Conte's Thrasher in the distance, but we could not refind it. However, we soon had a magical encounter with two Le Conte's Thrashers—getting to see them chase one another and run around on the ground with their tails cocked up; one even walked up onto the edge of our gravel road. All charged up, we drove slowly up the winding Cerro Noroeste road through open grasslands until reaching the pinyon pine and juniper covered slopes near the famous place called "THE SIGN," where birders often watched for California Condors before they were all captured for a breeding program and not far from where we saw two juvenile California Condors and two Golden Eagles yesterday. Several miles up the road, we turned onto the road, which took us to the top of Mt. Pinos (8,000+ feet). We picked up Chipping Sparrow along with many other species we had seen before. Whenever 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 prevented the usual company of warblers, vireos, and other species from joining the throng. However, we did pick up Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, and about 7 White-headed Woodpeckers. We also got lucky with superb views of "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees.
Our last day involved a successful catamaran cruise out to Santa Cruz Island to look for the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. Not only did we get super looks at several individuals, but we also had wonderful scope views of an endemic, non-migratory race of a male Allen's Hummingbird…stunning. Along the way out and back, we picked up Xantus's Murrelets, Sooty Shearwaters, and dozens of breeding plumaged Pacific Loons. On the return trip, we spent a spectacular half-hour watching humpback whales feeding and diving.