California Specialties Apr 18—27, 2014
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 29 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 from our 2014 tour:
Our birding began at Mission Trails Regional Park in search of several species typical of the coastal sage scrub habitat found there, especially the federally threatened California Gnatcatcher. As we continued down the trail, we added birds like Hooded Oriole, Bewick’s Wren, Anna’s Hummingbird, California and Spotted towhees, California Thrasher, and finally, our target, California Gnatcatcher. Next was a drive through Mission Gorge. The riparian corridor here produced some great birds for us. A Yellow-breasted Chat was very cooperative, as were McGillivray’s Warbler, and Yellow, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned warblers. At one watery stop, we glimpsed Bell’s Vireo many times, but had great views of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Near the dam we watched a Cooper’s Hawk on its nest and also a Black-chinned Hummingbird on its nest.
After lunch we headed for the San Diego river mouth where we found two Little Blue Herons; five species of ducks; Marbled Godwits; Willets; Whimbrel; Long-billed Curlew; Brant; about 300 Black Skimmers; Caspian, Royal, Elegant, and Forster’s terns; Black-bellied and Semipalmated plovers; Western and Least sandpipers; and Sanderlings. Our first checklist tallied 87 species seen today, a fantastic first day in the lowlands of San Diego County.
After breakfast, Kitchen Creek Road was superb with Chipping, Rufous-crowned, White-crowned, Lark, and Black-chinned sparrows, Gray Vireo, Scott’s Oriole, and some stunning migrants including Black-headed Grosbeak. One excellent stop on the Sunrise Highway allowed us to see a large Jeffrey pine riddled with Acorn Woodpecker holes, Mountain Chickadee, Violet-green Swallow, and Pygmy Nuthatch. On our way through Anza-Borrego State Park, we stopped briefly at the Tamarack Campground and saw Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, Cactus Wren, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
We headed straight to Finney Lake, picking up Black-necked Stilt on the way. The grounds around the houses had Eurasian Collared-Doves, Inca Doves, and Common Ground-Doves. Both Clark’s and Western grebes were easy to find, but they were in low numbers. We did get great photos of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, two Burrowing Owls, and several Wilson’s Phalaropes on the way to Ramer Lake. Here there were hundreds of Cattle Egrets and Double-crested Cormorants in full breeding plumage. We were able to locate one Neotropical Cormorant and then headed to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge where we had great views of a sleeping Barn Owl, Gambel’s Quail, White-winged Dove and others.
At Ramer Lake, I was able to call in a pair of Crissal Thrashers, and an Abert’s Towhee perched up briefly. We then headed over to the Salton Sea to try Unit 1 where there were two large fields that were perfect for shorebirds and waterfowl. We added Stilt Sandpiper and White-faced Ibis to our ever-growing list. Two Gull-billed Terns flew over, and at the Observation Deck we heard Yuma Clapper Rail. Poe Road brought us our first Red Knots, one Snowy Plover, several Yellow-footed Gulls, and one adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.
At Big Morongo there is a wonderful set-up for sitting and watching 14 or more feeders. There we enjoyed watching Hooded Orioles, Lesser Goldfinches, a female Summer Tanager, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and other species at the feeders. Our next stop was Covington Park where we saw a male and female Vermilion Flycatcher, Western Bluebirds, Lawrence’s Goldfinches, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and nesting Phainopeplas. Seeing five Western Tanagers together at the water pans was awesome.
At Big Morongo this morning we heard one Bell’s Vireo and many Yellow-breasted Chats and saw a male Summer Tanager. When we got to Mesquite Trail we saw a perched California Thrasher and Yellow-breasted Chat. Walking that loop we added Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Yellow, and Black-throated Gray warblers, and our first Cassin’s Vireo and Gray Flycatcher.
We were very lucky, picking up several Bell’s 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. First Barb spotted one, but it scampered away; eventually we all had great scope views. All charged up, we drove slowly up the winding Cerro Noroeste Road through open grasslands. Several miles up the road, we stopped at a closed down campground and I immediately heard the “quick-three-beers” of an Olive-sided Flycatcher and watched it on a bare treetop. We then turned onto the road that climbs to the top of Mt. Pinos (8,300 feet). Today we had more activity than yesterday and got better looks at “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow and Green-tailed Towhee. We also added Cassin’s and Purple finches before a very cooperative White-headed Woodpecker and two Red-breasted Sapsuckers.
From the parking lot of our Pismo Beach hotel, we added Black Oystercatchers, Peregrine Falcon, Surf Scoters, two species of cormorants, and dozens of Pigeon Guillemots. After breakfast we drove straight to Oceano and walked a trail along the lagoon’s riparian vegetation. It was an excellent walk as we picked up Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Bushtit, a very close Wrentit, Cedar Waxwings, Bullock’s Oriole, Purple Finch, and one of you got on the female Allen’s Hummingbird. At Oso Flaco Lake State Park, Townsend’s and Hermit warblers and Sora were our new birds. On the drive in and out of the park I gave you a mini-lecture on the difference between fruits and vegetables and the crops growing in these fertile fields.
In Santa Maria we headed down to Los Alamos County Park where Yellow-billed Magpies cooperated beautifully. We also had great looks at a Warbling Vireo, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Oregon Junco. Our last stop for the day was Gaviota State Park, which has a neat pier and produced breeding plumaged Pacific Loons flying north, Surf Scoters, and Whimbrels.
This year, our trip to Santa Cruz Island was cancelled due to 30–40 MPH winds. Here is an excerpt from last year’s tour: 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!