California Specialties Apr 19—28, 2013
Posted by Jeri Langham
When I retired from California State University in May 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 late April California Specialties tour? Before I began leading tours for VENT 27 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 had forgotten 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 Field List from the VENT website and also reading a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all the tour participants. The following are some excerpts about our 2013 tour. Brennan Mulrooney wrote the first paragraph after leading the first day of the tour while I attended my son’s graduation at U. of Redlands.
“Our day began at Mission Trails Regional Park. We were in search of several species typical of the coastal sage scrub habitat, especially the federally threatened California Gnatcatcher. As we continued down the trail, we added Anna’s Hummingbird, California Thrasher, California and Spotted towhees, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. While we were waiting to hear the kitten-like call of the California Gnatcatcher in a particularly good patch of habitat, we were treated to the sight of a White-tailed Kite that flew right over our heads with its freshly caught prey in its talons. I noticed a smaller bird fly and cross the trail right behind us. It was a California Gnatcatcher! Lucky for us, it didn’t go far and we were able to enjoy nice views of this adult male, his black cap gleaming in the morning sun. On our way out, I was shocked to find a Least Bell’s Vireo foraging way out in the coastal sage scrub. This is a riparian obligate species and only rarely seen outside of that habitat in the breeding season. In southern San Diego Bay we stopped at the J Street Marina and really hit a jackpot. There were new birds everywhere we looked. We found a Thayer’s Gull among the California Gulls, and a Gull-billed Tern among Royal, Elegant, and Caspians; we had Western and Least sandpipers, Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers, Red Knot, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Brant, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Horned and Eared grebes, and a stunning adult Reddish Egret in full-blown breeding colors.”
At the small Santa Ysabel Mission we added Say’s Phoebe, Cassin’s Kingbird, both Bullock’s and Hooded orioles, and our target bird, Lawrence’s Goldfinch. As we drove down the canyon into Anza-Borrego State Park, we picked up a Black-throated Sparrow, Phainopepla, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. The vegetation changed completely as we dropped into the desert. At our Tamarack Campground stop we added Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and California Quail.
The big event today was finding two adult Yellow-footed Gulls. The first was on the north side of Obsidian Butte. South of there we encountered hundreds of shorebirds, breeding Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets, many Wilson’s Phalaropes, and at least four Burrowing Owls.
Leaving the Brawley Inn, we checked the nearby neighborhood for Gila Woodpecker and Cactus Wren and found both within 15 minutes. We then returned to the southwestern edge of the Salton Sea. It was magical, as Lazuli Buntings, White-crowned Sparrows, and many species of warblers showed off for us as they dried out in the bare branches after bathing. Scoping the area near the levee, we added several species of ducks and half-a-dozen Franklin’s Gulls.
At Big Morongo there is a wonderful set-up for sitting and watching 14 or more feeders next to the host’s trailer. There we enjoyed Hooded Orioles, Lazuli Buntings, Lesser Goldfinches, a male Summer Tanager, Black-chinned Hummingbirds and other species. Our next stop was Covington Park where we found a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebirds, and two young Red-tailed Hawks in their nest. On Marsh Trail loop the vegetation was lush and there were lots of birds singing. We heard several Bell’s Vireos and Yellow-breasted Chats, but Wilson’s Warblers were the show-offs and we did see our first Cassin’s Vireo. On Mesquite Trail we found a Brown-crested Flycatcher, completing the target birds from this location.
On the 9-mile road going up to Mt. Pinos, my owl calls and pishing were very effective, bringing in nice flocks. We were able to get good looks at White-headed Woodpecker, three nuthatch species, the thick-billed race of Fox Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Mountain Chickadee, as well as some birds seen earlier. Soon time caught up with us and we started on the long, scenic downhill drive to Taft. At one of the two overlook stops, Rae spotted two adult Golden Eagles and one was carrying a branch to its nest.
On our way back to the Mt. Pinos road, we stopped at a closed down campground and I immediately heard a Red Crossbill. Everybody saw this bright male. We celebrated our good fortune by going to a nearby bakery to get a treat and some coffee. Making our way down from the top of Mt. Pinos (8,300 feet), we scanned the skies near the location where California Condors are released and fed, and I spotted one soaring over a home on the top of a nearby ridge. We got out and all saw it before it disappeared behind the ridge. Continuing on, we delighted at seeing two Golden Eagles and two juvenile California Condors circling above us. One condor had a tag with the number 70 on its right wing, but the other had no numbered tags so it may have been a bird hatched in the wild.
Most of you met me at 6:00 a.m. for birding from the parking lot of our Pismo Beach hotel, which overlooks the shoreline and a tall, steep cliff used for nesting. We added Black Oystercatchers, Surf Scoters, dozens of nesting Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants, and watched a fantastic show by a Peregrine Falcon.
At the mouth of the channel on our way to Santa Cruz Island we got to see a Wandering Tattler. Every trip is different and today we saw lots of Common Murres, a few Rhinoceros Auklets, and one Cassin’s Auklet. We had some common dolphins going out and back, too. We stopped at Scorpion Ranch dock to let off most of the campers before we arrived at the Prisoner’s Cove dock. While we were getting out of our warm clothes and claiming a “picnic” table, Sue spotted our first Island Scrub-Jays. This target species was seen over and over again today throughout the area we birded. Before lunch we also got scope views of a male Allen’s Hummingbird. I was especially pleased that we got to see TWO Santa Cruz Island Foxes, a first for me. The return trip across the Santa Barbara Channel was the coldest and roughest I can remember, even though we were going with the wind and waves. In spite of that we had excellent views of one pair of Scripp’s Murrelets, hundreds of Common Murres, and a few Red Phalaropes. What a fantastic way to end our 10-day tour!