Winter Southern California Jan 26—31, 2014

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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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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Once again, our Winter Southern California tour was a huge success with four action-packed days of birding conducted under ideal weather conditions (reaching 80 degrees one day!).

Our two days in San Diego began with a visit to an area of chaparral. Almost immediately we were greeted by a singing California Thrasher that allowed prolonged scope studies. In short order, a California Towhee hopped under our vans, two Wrentits came in somewhat furtively, but close, and a stunning male Allen’s Hummingbird teed up on a nearby Manzanita. A soft mewing call to our left revealed the presence of a California Gnatcatcher, which ultimately worked its way up to within a foot of the hummingbird! Brilliant Anna’s Hummingbirds, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black and Say’s phoebes, Western Scrub-Jay—the birds just kept coming. A nearby brackish lagoon produced a very rare Nelson’s Sparrow, in addition to the Large-billed and Belding’s races of Savannah Sparrow (both possible future splits).

Our primary target was the endangered California Gnatcatcher. This one fed along the top of the bushes for a few minutes, providing superb looks.

This California Gnatcatcher fed along the top of the bushes for a few minutes, providing superb looks.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

Working south along the coast, we birded the La Jolla Cove area next. Brandt’s Cormorants (in full breeding color), Black-vented Shearwater (distantly), Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, and Heermann’s Gull topped the list. Afternoon stops around Mission Bay and the San Diego River mouth yielded Brant, a male Eurasian Wigeon, five species of grebes (including Clark’s), Red Knot, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet, Mew Gull, Cassin’s Kingbird, and a Vermilion Flycatcher among others. For the day, we topped out at 101 species!

On our second day, we started at a roosting area for Snowy Plovers. Fifty-four of these threatened birds allowed great views as they huddled in the depressions of a sandy beach. A nearby brushy canyon revealed Western Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, more California Thrashers and California Towhees, better views of Wrentits, and about 15 of the newly countable Nutmeg Mannikins. Three beautiful Townsend’s Warblers entertained us at Balboa Park, along with a herd of Bushtits and a Bewick’s Wren. Around Imperial Beach, we tallied Pelagic Cormorant, Red-throated Loon, a pair of Clapper Rails from 15 feet, and a rare pair of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. In the afternoon, we headed east to a location where we hoped to see the declining Tricolored Blackbird. Not only did we have fantastic views of the blackbirds from 10 feet, but also added Greater White-fronted Goose, Wood Duck, Cinnamon Teal, Hooded Merganser, and Swamp Sparrow.

Another rare find for the day was this stunning male Williamson's Sapsucker. We had six species of woodpeckers for the day.

Another rare find was this stunning male Williamson’s Sapsucker.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

The following day we headed east through the Laguna Mountains en route to the Salton Sea. An early stop produced incredible studies of Band-tailed Pigeon and an entertaining Oak Titmouse. This was followed by the fortuitous discovery of a Lewis’s Woodpecker actively hoarding acorns in a telephone pole. Higher up at Paso Picacho Campground, we had a host of new species including a male Williamson’s Sapsucker (we had six species of woodpeckers for the day), abundant Acorn Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, and adorable Pygmy Nuthatches. As we descended down towards sea level, we encountered a different group of birds. Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Rock Wren, Sage Thrasher (very uncommon), Phainopepla, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher all put in appearances. In the closing hour of daylight, we briefly birded the southwestern edge of the Salton Sea. Thousands of white geese (Snow and Ross’s), a few hundred Sandhill Cranes, flocks of White-faced Ibis, and a pair of Burrowing Owls topped the list.

On our final day we scoured the sea and surrounding agricultural areas. Early on, a flock of 219 Mountain Plovers were spotted and we enjoyed prolonged studies. A thousand Ross’s Geese, Ferruginous Hawk, Gambel’s Quail, two rare Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Glaucous-winged Gull, roosting Great Horned and Barn owls, several more pairs of Burrowing Owls, Greater Roadrunner, and Abert’s Towhee were among the more notable additions. Late afternoon produced four male Costa’s Hummingbirds at a feeder in Brawley and a great show at a roosting site for cranes, ducks, and ibis.

In all we topped 180 species of birds in just four days of birding and enjoyed basically perfect weather throughout. What a great winter escape!