Winter Southern California Jan 24—30, 2016

Posted by Brennan Mulrooney


Brennan Mulrooney

Brennan Mulrooney was born and raised in San Diego, California. Growing up, his heart and mind were captured by the ocean. He split his summer days between helping out behi...

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With the forecast of a historic El Niño for this winter, you can bet that I was losing plenty of sleep imagining all of the ways this year’s Winter Southern California tour could be ruined by rain. Luckily, all my worry was for naught. Our weather was spectacular! Cool mornings gave way to pleasant, sunny days with light winds and not a single drop of rain!

Sandhill Cranes and assorted ducks

Sandhill Cranes and assorted ducks— Photo: Brennan Mulrooney


Our first day was a whirlwind tour of a variety of coastal habitats of San Diego County. We started in the coastal sage scrub habitat above San Elijo Lagoon. Coastal sage scrub (CSS) is a plant community that has largely disappeared from Southern California as development has devoured over 85% of the land it formerly occupied. Perhaps the most iconic inhabitant of the CSS, certainly among birders, is the diminutive California Gnatcatcher. California Gnatcatchers are found only in CSS, and with the disappearance of the majority of their habitat, they have found themselves listed as a Federally Threatened species. Though the gnatcatcher was our main quarry on this first morning, we certainly found a lot of other birds to distract us from our mission! Right out of the gate we had Western Scrub-Jays on the wires, California Quail scurrying across the trail, and a herd of Bushtits filtering through while a pair of Wrentits did circles around us. Allen’s Hummingbirds competed with Anna’s Hummingbirds for our attention while California Thrashers belted out their rollicking songs from exposed perches. Spotted and California towhees showed well for us while Nuttall’s Woodpecker forced us to work a little harder for our first looks. A quick change of venue provided us with a flurry of activity around some backyard feeders that bordered the CSS. Here we found the irruptive and enigmatic Lawrence’s Goldfinch mixed in with a flock of Lesser Goldfinches. Lawrence’s Goldfinch breeds in the mountains of San Diego, but wanders widely in winter and can never be guaranteed for this tour. Eventually we tore ourselves away from the feeder show, and we finally found a pair of California Gnatcatchers once we returned to the CSS. The male showed just a hint of the black cap he has in breeding plumage, and the female was all cloaked in brownish-gray and black. Their kitten-like mewing calls clued us in to their presence and helped us locate them as they worked their way through the low scrub.

Gambel's Quail

Gambel’s Quail— Photo: Brennan Mulrooney


After such a successful beginning, it was hard to imagine improving on our luck, but the rest of our day proved to be just as great as the start! Our next stop was the mouth of the San Dieguito River where, just as we were leaving, we spotted a Pacific Golden-Plover that has been wintering at the site since 2011. Then at La Jolla Cove, thanks to some helpful photographers, and after pausing to admire two very close perched Peregrine Falcons, we quickly located 3 Brown Boobies roosting on the cliffs. As we walked along the shoreline, we encountered California Sea Lions snoozing on the cliffs and California Gray Whales migrating offshore. We found stunning Heermann’s Gulls alongside Brandt’s and Double-crested cormorants in full, blazing breeding colors. Black Turnstones scurried along the rocks at the water’s edge and, with a little work, we eventually discovered a Wandering Tattler roaming about.

After a tasty lunch, we found a spot along the shore of Mission Bay that was loaded with birds. A large group of waterfowl included many “Black” Brant and a male Eurasian Wigeon. A huge flock of shorebirds included many Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrel, and Marbled Godwits. Among the more numerous dowitchers and sandpipers we also found a few Red Knots, which were not red. The highlight may have been a large flock of roosting Black Skimmers that allowed close approach so that we could admire their unique and flashy bills.

Snowy Plovers and Western Sandpipers

Snowy Plovers and Western Sandpipers— Photo: Brennan Mulrooney


The day ended with a stop to check a roosting flock of Cassin’s Kingbirds that has been host to a rare Tropical Kingbird. As the sun was nearing the horizon, we located a few Cassin’s at first, and then eventually spotted a kingbird that showed yellow continuing farther up the chest; a brown, notched tail; and a huge bill. It was the Tropical Kingbird! A delicious dinner at Indigo Grill was the perfect end to an amazing first day of the tour. It was our last of over 100 species found that day.

Other tour highlights included point-blank views of male Costa’s Hummingbirds, large groups of comical Acorn Woodpeckers, ridiculously charismatic Burrowing Owls, a large flock of Mountain Plovers, a Ridgway’s Rail that swam right up to us, and a very rare Thick-billed Kingbird. In addition to the birds, we were transfixed by the dramatic transition of habitats as we dropped out of the coniferous forest above 5,000 feet down to below sea level in the Salton Sink. The otherworldly appearance of the Salton Sea certainly did not disappoint, nor did the many breathtaking views of the San Diego area, whether they were from the peak of the Coronado Bridge, our table at the Bali Hai restaurant, or from the bottom of Mission Gorge.