Winter Southern California Jan 22—27, 2012
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
VENT's Winter Southern California tour has always been one of my favorites, and not only because it's like birding right in my backyard. Southern California is an absolute hot spot for birds in winter, and the weather is often quite pleasant. Even when the weather doesn't cooperate fully, like our first day this year, it's still better than in much of the country. By birding within a couple of hours of San Diego we are able to sample an amazing variety of habitats and see a tremendous variety of birds, many of them regional specialties.
Though we were dogged by passing showers, our first day still produced some great birding and quality birds. In the coastal sage scrub surrounding San Elijo Lagoon we found California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, and Wrentit. At a nearby cattail marsh we found the local and declining Tricolored Blackbird and an out-of-habitat pair of Clapper Rails (normally found in salt marsh). Along the rocky coastline at La Jolla we were treated to nesting Brandt's Cormorants showing their electric-blue gular pouches as they performed breeding displays. We found Black Turnstone and the gorgeous Heermann's Gull as we searched for and eventually found a Wandering Tattler, hiding in plain sight (Thanks Jan!). In Mission Bay we had side by side views of Clark's, Western, Horned, and Eared grebes. Then at the mouth of the San Diego River we found goodies like Reddish Egret and Little Blue Heron among the hundreds of ducks, gulls, and shorebirds.
Day two brought us some much appreciated sunshine and more fantastic birding. We started with roosting Snowy Plovers and Surfbirds in Mission Beach before beginning our circuit of San Diego Bay. We made some inland stops that produced wintering vagrants like Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Thick-billed Kingbird, and a Green-tailed Towhee in with a flock of White-crowned Sparrows. That same flock produced our only Golden-crowned Sparrow. The Silver Strand brought us into the Navy town of Coronado and produced some nice male Surf Scoters and Redhead. Our afternoon took us back inland where we visited the riparian and chaparral habitats of Mission Trails which produced Nuttall's Woodpecker, Hutton's Vireo, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and "Sooty" Fox Sparrow among others. We finished at a lake in Lakeside that gave us Greater White-fronted Goose, Townsend's Warbler, and the bird voted favorite of the trip: a Virginia Rail that came out of the cattails and walked slowly right up to us, ending up about 5 feet away in plain view.
Day three took us up into the mountains where we added California Quail, Band-tailed Pigeon, Cassin’s Vireo, Mountain (Bailey's) Chickadee, Brown Creeper, and "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow before we dropped down into the desert. In Anza Borrego Desert State Park we found Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, and Black-throated Sparrow before continuing on to the Salton Sea. Sunset at Unit 1 of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was magical. There were literally thousands of birds in all directions. Flocks of Snow and Ross's geese were in the dry fields with Sandhill Cranes. Freshwater ponds were chock-full of ducks, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and gulls. The air was filled with enormous flocks of blackbirds and squadrons of majestic American White Pelicans. It was a very special ending to a wonderful day.
Our final day of birding found us starting at a park in Brawley where we found Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, and Abert's Towhee before focusing our efforts on scouring the shore of the Salton Sea for gulls. We stopped on our way there for excellent views of Burrowing Owl and Prairie Falcon, and made a midday detour to chase a hot report of the difficult to find Mountain Plover. While our gull search didn't net the hoped for Yellow-footed Gull (very few stayed the winter this year), we enjoyed multiple Thayer's Gulls and a Glaucous-winged Gull. Our last stop on the shore produced some excitement as a dark-backed gull appeared on a distant jetty, but alas, it turned out to be a Western Gull, which is usually more rare there than its Yellow-footed cousin. We ended the day in style as we walked through a dry Bermuda grass field and were treated to extended close views of a Sprague's Pipit (very rare in California), our 191st species in four days of birding. It was a very satisfying ending to a wonderful tour.