Winter Southern California Jan 20—25, 2013

Posted by Barry Zimmer


Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Incredible weather, a record setting list of birds that included virtually all of our targets, and several rarities to boot—this year’s Winter California tour had it all! We began in San Diego with two full days to bird that species-rich region. Our first stop was a patch of chaparral that produced excellent views of the highly sought California Gnatcatcher, in addition to a displaying male Allen’s Hummingbird, a male Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Cassin’s Kingbird, several close Wrentits, scope views of California Thrasher, a somewhat unexpected Golden-crowned Sparrow, and numerous California Towhees. Nearby horse farms yielded the declining Tricolored Blackbird, as well as two Cackling Geese (locally rare) and several White-faced Ibis. A rare Pacific Golden-Plover was seen by some members of the group near the river mouth, before a dog unfortunately flushed it away. By midmorning we headed to La Jolla to enjoy some coastal birds. Brandt’s Cormorants in full breeding plumage, distant Black-vented Shearwaters, close Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattler, stunning Heermann’s Gulls, and numerous California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals were among the many highlights. After lunch we continued covering waterbird areas in and around Mission Bay and Sunset Cliffs. Pelagic Cormorant, five species of grebes, Brant (the western subspecies nigricans), Snowy Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Black Skimmer, and Vermilion Flycatcher were among the more noteworthy sightings.

On the south end of San Diego Bay, we discovered a Curlew Sandpiper. This Asian vagrant was a tour first and an ABA lifer for me!

On the south end of San Diego Bay, we discovered a Curlew Sandpiper. This Asian vagrant was a tour first and an ABA lifer for me!— Photo: Barry Zimmer


The next day we ventured south toward Chula Vista and San Diego Bay. Stakeout rarities were cooperative early as we added two male Eurasian Wigeons, a Thick-billed Kingbird (returning for its third year), and a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Stunning Cinnamon Teal, Red-throated Loon, Surf Scoter,  a great performance by a Peregrine Falcon chasing waterfowl and shorebirds, a close pair of Clapper Rails, out-of-place Red-breasted Nuthatches, and the Belding’s race of Savannah Sparrow (a possible future split) rounded out the morning. Our best moment came right after lunch when we discovered a Curlew Sandpiper at the far southern end of San Diego Bay. This Asiatic vagrant is rare anywhere in the United States and is virtually unknown in midwinter. Incredibly, this was an ABA life bird for me! Late afternoon at inland locales we added Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, and Western Bluebird.

On the third morning we headed to the pine/oak forests of the Laguna Mountains. A roadside stop en route yielded Band-tailed Pigeons, two unusual Townsend’s Solitaires, Oak Titmouse, and a cooperative Fox Sparrow. The always birdy Paso Picacho Campground was equally productive with abundant Acorn Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpecker, adorable Pygmy Nuthatches, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and more Oak Titmice. Two stakeout Lewis’s Woodpeckers near Julian were very cooperative, and proved to be the group’s favorite bird of the tour. By midafternoon we began descending toward the Salton Sea. Quick stops in Banner and in the Anza Borrego Desert en route produced a covey of California Quail, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Phainopepla. We arrived at Unit 1 of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge a short time before dusk. Amazingly an immature Trumpeter Swan (very rare in southern California) was there to greet us along the roadside. A small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese and groups of Sandhill Cranes were also added to the list.

On our final day we covered the agricultural lands from El Centro to the south end of the sea, as well as the sea itself. Our prime targets were the highly sought Yellow-footed Gull (found nowhere else in the United States) and the declining and often elusive Mountain Plover. The gull is notoriously hard to find in midwinter, when there are generally only one or two present on the entire sea. Luck was on our side, however, as we found a full adult bird in short time near Obsidian Butte. We had lengthy scope views for all, and finally walked away from this special bird. Snow and Ross’s geese side by side, three Ferruginous Hawks, a Prairie Falcon, very close Gambel’s Quail, roosting Great Horned and Barn owls, nine Burrowing Owls, Common Ground-Dove, several Greater Roadrunners, and a Mountain Bluebird were all added as we scoured the area looking for the plovers. As the afternoon faded away (and with it our hopes of seeing the Mountain Plover), Brennan spotted a flock in a bare dirt field just north of Brawley—a true last-minute find! We even managed to squeeze in a few minutes of birding in the town itself, adding stunning Costa’s Hummingbirds and Gila Woodpecker. En route to our motel we paused at a roosting site for waterbirds where hundreds of Sandhill Cranes sailed in overhead among the more numerous waterfowl and gulls. A great finale to a great day!

We finished the trip with a record setting 195 species in just four days of birding. Our list was chock-full of rarities with Trumpeter Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Curlew Sandpiper, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Thick-billed Kingbird. In addition, the weather was superb every day.