California Specialties Apr 24—May 03, 2015

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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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 30 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 by reading here a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all the tour participants. Following are some excerpts from our 2015 tour:

Our birding was supposed to begin at Mission Trails Regional Park, but the rain was getting worse, so we headed for the Chula Vista Bayfront Park’s mudflats. The tide was perfect. We had superb looks at lots of birds, including Least, Gull-billed, Caspian, Elegant, and Royal terns and a single Black Skimmer. We watched a Horned Lark in breeding flight display and picked up a few breeding plumage Red Knots, both dowitcher species, Western Sandpiper, and more. From here we headed south to the sod farm, where we saw Blue Grosbeak and Say’s Phoebe and found a Bushtit nest with parents feeding youngsters. At the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park there were two silk oak trees in full bloom. We spent about forty minutes watching dozens of birds coming in to feed. We saw breeding plumage Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, both orioles, seven warbler species, Warbling Vireo, and, flying past, two Common Ground-Doves. At the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge we walked a trail and saw Costa’s Hummingbird, Sora, Ridgway’s Rail, and two adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Due to the midday time, I decided to first visit Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve to see the dozens of breeding Wood Ducks, two American White Pelicans, Cassin’s Kingbird and, best of all, one adult and several juvenile Scaly-breasted Munias. This introduced species is now countable. Bill had wanted to see Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and one cooperated for us. Our checklist tallied 113 species seen/heard today, a fantastic first day in the lowlands of San Diego County.

After breakfast we headed for Kitchen Creek Road. It was superb with Phainopepla; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; Bewick’s Wren; California Thrasher; Western Bluebirds; Rock Wren; Steller’s Jay; White-crowned, Lark, and Black-chinned sparrows; Gray Vireo; Scott’s Oriole; Lazuli Bunting; and other stunning migrants.

At the small Santa Ysabel Mission, we added our target bird, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, but really had to work for it. As we headed down into Anza-Borrego State Park, the forest vegetation changed completely to desert vegetation. We stopped briefly at the Tamarack Campground and saw Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and we heard a Cactus Wren.

Near the Salton Sea’s Red Hill Marina, the huge body of water produced hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes, an escaped Flamingo, Redheads, and more. The Salton Sea is dropping by an estimated eight inches per year, and that has changed many of the places where I normally find birds.

After breakfast, we headed to Ramer Lake where I was able to call in a Crissal Thrasher that perched and a Marsh Wren. Since leaving Calipatria we began to count Burrowing Owls to see if we could match the one-day record of 22, but fell short with 18. Driving down the levees and checking corners with abundant birds, we photographed an adult Franklin’s Gull, an adult Neotropic Cormorant in breeding plumage, and a close Yellow-footed Gull.

After a long drive we arrived at Big Morongo Canyon Reserve where there is a wonderful set-up for sitting and watching 14 or more feeders. We enjoyed Hooded and Bullock’s orioles, Lesser Goldfinches, and Black-chinned, Costa’s, Anna’s, and Calliope hummingbirds. Our next stop was Covington Park where we saw male and female Vermilion Flycatchers, Western and two male Summer tanagers, a Brown-crested Flycatcher, and nesting Phainopeplas.

After lunch, we drove the main road going up Mt. Pinos. We had to work hard for Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches, White-headed Woodpecker, the thick-billed race of Fox Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. The only easy species were Steller’s Jay, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin.

Soon we began driving slowly down the sagebrush-covered hills along Petroleum Club Road. We were very lucky, seeing another Bell’s Sparrow, so we stopped to view it, and that is when Rhea spotted a Le Conte’s Thrasher, the big target bird. In the end we had it running around us and perching for great photos. As we prepared to leave, a Loggerhead Shrike perched on the same sign. INCREDIBLE LUCK!

We turned onto the road that climbs 8 miles to the top of Mt. Pinos (8,300 feet). Today we had more activity and got better looks at Green-tailed Towhee, Dusky Flycatcher, and then a very cooperative Wrentit. At the end of the road, I heard Red Crossbills and we were able to see them through my scope. A few stops down the hill, Rhea spotted a Clark’s Nutcracker at the top of a pine…it was the first time I have seen one on this tour.

We met at 6:00 a.m. for birding from the hotel parking lot, adding dozens of close Pigeon Guillemots, Black Oystercatchers, TWO Peregrine Falcons, three Rhinoceros Auklets, Wandering Tattler, Common and Red-throated loons, Surf Scoters, and three species of cormorants. The long sandy beach near our hotel had migrating Whimbrels for as far as we could see. After breakfast we drove to Oceano Campground where we walked a trail along the lagoon’s riparian vegetation. It was an excellent walk as we picked up Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Swainson’s Thrushes (some in full song), Wrentit, Warbling Vireo, Purple Finch, both Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, and American Goldfinch, and we had superb looks at Virginia Rail, multiple Soras, and Marsh Wren. We then headed down to Los Alamos County Park where Yellow-billed Magpies had always cooperated beautifully. However, this year not a one showed up. We decided to head for the next location where some had been seen recently. Lady Luck was with us! As I turned down the road, a Yellow-billed Magpie flew across the road in front of us. There was a nice pullover, so we got out and spent about 25 minutes watching up to six birds fly around the area. Talk about incredible relief—seeing the endemic that is on the front of my Checklist.

At about 8 a.m. we checked into Island Packers and soon were on our way to Santa Cruz Island. As we left the harbor the winds were stronger than predicted, and we soon began to receive ocean spray. There were lots of Common Murres and Red-necked Phalaropes seen on the way out. We also picked up one Rhinoceros Auklet, two Cassin’s Auklets, and some Scripp’s Murrelets, Red Phalaropes, and Elegant Terns. This time, the Island Scrub-Jays were very secretive, and it took us nearly an hour to spot the first one high on a hillside. We got our best looks after eating our picnic lunch. Only three of you saw the male resident race of Allen’s Hummingbird, but all enjoyed about 15 other species before our return trip to Ventura. The best bird going back was an adult Pomarine Jaeger that lifted off the water giving us superb views.