California Specialties Apr 20—29, 2012
Posted by Jeri Langham
When I retired from California State University in 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 26 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 website, and also by reading a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to the participants:
Our target birds near Mission Trails were California Gnatcatcher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The latter was easy, but California Gnatcatcher was difficult this year. However, we lucked out and saw a nice male. We also enjoyed great, long looks at Spotted and California towhees, California Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, Bushtits, and Wrentit. We made a quick visit to the Mission Trails 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 along the creek below us. We could not have had a better morning with Cooper's Hawks, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Bell's Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Townsend's, Back-throated Gray, Yellow, and Orange-crowned warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, and more. Many of these were at one stop near a large pool of water. Up on a cliff, I showed you a nest with one juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. Due to successful trapping of Brown-headed Cowbirds here, the Least Bell's Vireo is making a comeback in this canyon. It was one of our target birds and cooperated beautifully. We also picked up Phainopepla and a Costa's Hummingbird on a nest. After a short siesta, we went to the mudflats near the mouth of the San Diego River. It was simply fantastic, with 3 Little Blue Herons, about 6 species of ducks, 3 tern species—with Elegant being a lifer for most of you, Black Brant, lots of shorebirds, and my favorite—about 30 Black Skimmers. A fly-by Peregrine Falcon made almost all the birds scatter and then alight again.
At the small Santa Ysabel Mission we added Say's Phoebe, Cassin's Kingbird, and our target bird, Lawrence's Goldfinch. As we headed down into Anza-Borrego State Park, we picked up a Black-throated Sparrow and Rufous Hummingbird in the canyon. The vegetation changed completely as we dropped into the desert. On our way through the park, we stopped briefly at the Tamarack Campground and found Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and a migrating MacGillivray's Warbler.
At Finney Lake we experienced a fairly good morning for migrants, as we added a number of warblers to our list. Both Clark's and Western grebes were easy to find, and a pair of Clark's did their display/mating dance for us as they bowed and then ran together on the water. Abert's Towhees were the most common "special area" birds we saw. Ramer Lake was less impressive for passerines, but gave us hundreds of Cattle and other egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, a late Greater White-fronted Goose, and four Brewer's Sparrows. The big event today was finding Burrowing Owls on our way to the Salton Sea shoreline. We must have seen as many as 9 or 10 throughout the day. Along the southern end of the sea, on the east side levee, we hit paydirt with a tremendous number of shorebirds. I do not remember ever seeing so many Stilt Sandpipers in one place. We located a Pacific Golden-Plover in with the many Black-bellied Plovers and had great looks at Snowy Plover.
At Big Morongo there is a wonderful set-up for sitting and watching 10+ feeders by the host’s trailer. There we enjoyed seeing both Hooded and Bullock's orioles, Lazuli Buntings, Lesser Goldfinches, and many hummers at the feeders. Nearby we added Olive-sided Flycatcher and Oak Titmouse. Our next stop was Covington Park where we saw a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebirds, and two young Red-tailed Hawks at their nest. It was another incredible day of successes!
We were very lucky, picking up two Sage Sparrows and a Loggerhead Shrike shortly after starting our birding in the sagebrush-covered hills along Petroleum Club Road. However, Le Conte's Thrasher proved more difficult. Soon we arrived at the location where I saw them last year and got to see a pair chase one another and a third individual that joined in as they ran around on the ground with their tails cocked up. Several miles up the road, we turned onto the road, climbing to the top of Mt. Pinos (8,300 feet). 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; we also picked up Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker (both races), Northern Flicker, and about 3 White-headed Woodpeckers. Our luck continued with superb views of "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees.
After lunch we headed down to Los Alamos County Park where Yellow-billed Magpie cooperated beautifully. Our last stop for the day was Gaviota State Park, which has a neat pier and produced six Wandering Tattlers in breeding plumage and several gray whales migrating north.
The trip out to Santa Cruz Island on our large catamaran was wonderful. At the mouth of the channel we saw a male Steller's sea lion along with about 4 much smaller California sea lions. There was little bird activity until we got to the place where the shelf drops off and deeper waters rich with nutrients are sent by upwellings. Here we got several pairs of Xantus's Murrelets, a few Cassin's Auklets, lots of fly-by Pacific Loons, and some Sooty Shearwaters. Just before we arrived at the Scorpion Ranch dock, we saw the largest pod of common dolphins I have ever witnessed. There were easily 500–1,000 of these individuals stretching out along a half-mile line…I still cannot believe what I saw. After we arrived at our stop, Prisoner's Cove dock, and while we were getting out of our warm clothes and claiming a "picnic" table, our first Island Scrub-Jays flew in to say hello. They kept hiding in the bushes, but eventually all of you got good looks at them. The number of male Allen's Hummingbirds we saw in my scope was fantastic and very different from the single bird we saw last year. We did get to see a third year Bald Eagle (twice), Osprey, and at least a dozen other species on the island. As we waited for the catamaran to pick us up and take us back to the mainland, I gave you several mini-lectures; we discussed spines, thorns, and prickles, as well as Equisetum, known as horsetails or joint-grass or scouring rushes. We had even better views of pelagic species on the way back to the mainland. At the farewell dinner you were surprised to learn that we saw 230 species of birds on this tour and heard an additional six. We also encountered 16 species of mammals, with kit fox being the rarest.