Winter Southern California Jan 25—31, 2015

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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Our California Winter tour was so filled with highlights that it is hard to know where to start. We began in an area of chaparral where we enjoyed superb studies of Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Cassin’s Kingbird, Wrentit, California Thrasher, and California Towhee among others, but it was the brilliant male Allen’s Hummingbird that stole the show. This orange and green beauty posed for multiple, prolonged views from as close as 20 feet away. A short distance away in scenic La Jolla, we added Pacific and Red-throated loons, Brandt’s Cormorant, Black-vented Shearwater, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Heermann’s Gull, and Common Murre (rare). A Gray Whale just off the cove was the icing on the cake! The remainder of the day focused on Mission Bay, the San Diego River channel, and surrounding areas. Perched Pelagic Cormorants, numerous Brant (the western subspecies), a male Eurasian Wigeon (rare), Greater Scaup, five species of grebes (including Clark’s), Long-billed Curlew, Black Skimmer (more than a hundred), a wayward Vermilion Flycatcher, and a very rare Tropical Kingbird topped the list.

A spectacular male Allen's Hummingbird stole the show at this location. The species has recently increased in the San Diego area.

Allen’s Hummingbird — Photo: Barry Zimmer

On the second day, we started at a beach where Snowy Plovers roost. We had point-blank views of 54 of these cute birds huddled into little divets in the sand. Nearby, a Surfbird was spotted on a rocky jetty. Next, we targeted the endangered California Gnatcatcher and within short time had a cooperative pair foraging a short distance away. A Thick-billed Kingbird (accidental), a male Vermilion Flycatcher, and three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons added to our growing list. By late morning we had begun our search for the newly split Ridgeway’s Rail. As we strolled along the edge of a salt marsh, someone in the back of the group spotted one not far off the berm we were standing on. It walked right out into the open and was eventually joined by its mate. Everyone stood in stunned silence as the rails strolled by us just feet away. It was ultimately voted the favorite bird of the tour by the group! Afternoon birding yielded a male Costa’s Hummingbird, 20 or more endangered Tricolored Blackbirds, and two striking Scaly-breasted Munias.

The favorite bird of the tour was the recently split Ridgeway's Rail. A pair of these rails came walking out of the marsh and right past our group. At one point they were five feet away!

Favorite bird of the tour – the recently split Ridgeway’s Rail—Photo: Barry Zimmer

Day three found us heading eastward through the Laguna and Cuyamaca mountains where a whole different suite of birds awaited us. Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Acorn Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, and Purple Finch were among the more noteworthy. Surprise finds included an adult Bald Eagle and four Hooded Mergansers. In the afternoon, desert habitats en route to our hotel yielded Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Black-throated Sparrow.

The next day was spent scouring agricultural lands north of El Centro and the southern end of the Salton Sea. Our primary target, the Yellow-footed Gull (found nowhere else in the country), was amazingly found in the first minutes of searching. For the day we were able to locate four individuals, including two full adults. Other highlights included thousands of white geese (Snow and Ross’s), a rare American Bittern, hundreds of White-faced Ibis, White-tailed Kite, Prairie Falcon, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes coming to roost, an estimated 750 Long-billed Curlews, an adult Glaucous-winged Gull, a wonderful Barn Owl, eight Burrowing Owls, a very rare Varied Thrush, and two “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrows.

Finding a Yellow-footed Gull at the Salton Sea in January is always a challenge. This year the challenge took five minutes! What luck.

Yellow-footed Gull— Photo: Barry Zimmer

On our final day, we took a more northerly route back to San Diego. Cackling Goose, two Ferruginous Hawks, a pair of Bald Eagles, two vagrant Lewis’s Woodpeckers, 60+ gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds, and two Bell’s Sparrows were among the most notable.

In all we totaled 194 species for the trip (a tour record), saw virtually all of our target species, and enjoyed excellent weather. In other words, the perfect winter getaway!