California Specialties May 06—15, 2016

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 reading here a few excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all of the tour participants. Following are some excerpts from our 2016 tour:

Our first day of birding began at the Deerfield Pump Station entrance to Mission Trails Regional Park looking for several species typical of the coastal sage scrub. It was to be my best visit to this 1/2-mile loop. It started out slowly with a Black-headed Grosbeak that would not show itself, but we then had cooperative California and Spotted towhees. Our first “good” bird was a distant Rock Wren down in the pit, but then Rufous-crowned Sparrow also cooperated beautifully. Our first vocal California Gnatcatcher (federally threatened species) would not let itself be seen, but the next one was incredible with both male and females showing themselves. A male Costa’s Hummingbird gave us good looks, but the Allen’s was seen by only some of you. We did get excellent looks at California Thrasher and later a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It was a great loop.

We headed to Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve to find breeding Wood and Ruddy ducks, Cassin’s Kingbird, Red-necked Phalarope (a surprise), breeding plumage Eared Grebes and, best of all, dozens of Scaly-breasted Munias at two feeders. This introduced species is now countable.

At Mission Hills Trails, I decided we needed to walk down to the place where I saw Bell’s Vireo two days ago. It did allow distant views, but Bewick’s Wren, Costa’s Hummingbird, and Lazuli Bunting gave us fantastic views.

The tide was perfect at the Chula Vista Bayfront Park’s J St. mudflats and still going out. We had superb looks at lots of birds, including Least Terns (only seen twice on the previous 19 tours). Gull-billed, Caspian, Elegant, and Royal terns were easy, and we also added Black-bellied Plovers and one Western Sandpiper.

There were two Grevillea robusta or silk oak trees in full bloom at Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. We spent about forty minutes watching dozens of birds coming in to feed. We saw breeding plumage Hermit, Yellow, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and Townsend’s warblers, along with great views of Pacific-slope Flycatchers and a Greater Roadrunner. A male Black-chinned Hummingbird posed for photos before we left. At the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge near Imperial Beach, we walked the trail that I scouted yesterday and today again saw Ridgway’s Rail and two adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Our first checklist tallied 106 species seen/heard today.

Kitchen Creek Road was our first stop on Day 2. It was superb with Phainopepla, Bewick’s Wren, California Thrasher, Western Bluebirds, Rock and Canyon wrens, Steller’s Jays, Black-chinned Sparrows, Gray Vireo, and Bullock’s and Scott’s orioles.

We then headed to Jacumba, the small town near the Mexican border. We struck pay dirt with excellent views of Tricolored Blackbirds.

There were some tremendous views of the Anza-Borrego Desert from a pullout overlook where we added Pygmy Nuthatch and Violet-green Swallow.  On our way through Anza-Borrego State Park, we stopped briefly at Tamarisk Grove Campground and saw Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Our first destination in the Salton Sea area was Finney Lake. We saw Gambel’s Quail, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, White-faced Ibis and more before even arriving at the entrance. The grounds around the houses had Eurasian Collared-Doves and White-winged Doves. Both Clark’s and Western grebes were easy to find, but they were in low numbers. Abert’s Towhee gave us good looks.

At Obsidian Dome, we found three-dozen Red Knots, most in breeding plumage.  Several breeding plumaged Black-bellied Plovers were nice to see, along with three Snowy Plovers, four Gull-billed Terns and more.

At the Sonny Bono NWR Visitor’s Center, I was able to locate the roosting Barn Owl. Checking my app again for Yellow-footed Gull, I noted Guy McCaskie had seen one in a part we had not tried to check. This time we were extremely lucky when, after seeing so many Brown and American White pelicans, an adult Yellow-footed Gull flew past us with a Herring Gull not far behind it. As expected, we were all very happy. Then it was on to Marilyn’s place to check her feeders once again. The minute I stepped out of the van I saw a Bronzed Cowbird at one feeder with a smaller male Brown-headed Cowbird next to it for comparison. What luck!  

On our way to Big Morongo Canyon Reserve and Covington Park, we drove by an incredible area filled with huge electricity-generating windmills. Our next stop was Covington Park where we saw male and female Vermilion Flycatchers, Western and Summer tanagers, a Brown-crested Flycatcher pair, and nesting Phainopeplas. At Big Morongo there is a wonderful set-up for sitting and watching 14 feeders and a water drip. There we enjoyed watching Hooded and Bullock’s orioles, Western Tanagers and one male Summer Tanager, Lesser Goldfinches, and Black-chinned and Anna’s hummingbirds.

After lunch, we drove straight to the main road going up to Mt. Pinos. We had to work hard for Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches, Steller’s Jay, Band-tailed Pigeon, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskins. The big surprise was seeing three Lawrence’s Goldfinches and having Mountain Quail call but not come in to my tape playback. Soon time caught up with us and we started on the long, but scenic, drive to Maricopa down in the valley. 

Due to our incredible luck after dinner last night in finding Bell’s Sparrow, Le Conte’s Thrasher, and Loggerhead Shrike, we did not have to search for them this morning. We drove slowly up the winding Cerro Noroeste Road through open grasslands picking up one Vesper Sparrow while seeing dozens of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. We also got to see a perched California Quail, a species we had only heard so far on this tour. We stopped briefly at the famous place called “THE SIGN.” This is where birders often watched for California Condors that were being released. Several miles up the road, we stopped at the closed down Mil Potrero Campground, and I immediately heard the call note of a Hairy Woodpecker that cooperated for us. We also heard the “quick-three-beers” of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and we watched it on a bare treetop. We then turned onto the road that climbs 8 miles to the top of Mt. Pinos (8,300 feet). Today we saw several new tour species: Green-tailed Towhee, Dusky Flycatcher, Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, and Cassin’s Finch, heard Red Crossbill, and again were teased by calling Mountain Quail. 

I planned to stop at both locations again today to scan the skies for California Condor. At the very last stop, James spotted a California Condor, but it disappeared behind the ridge before any others could see it. We pulled into Pismo Beach and our wonderful Best Western about 4:45 p.m. and headed for the great restaurant at the far end of the parking lot. Our meal was fancy and delicious. But, the very best was watching two adult Gray Whales and one juvenile sky-hopping right out from the restaurant as they migrated north.

Five of you met me at 5:45 a.m. for birding from the parking lot of our Pismo Beach hotel. It was a bit overcast so there was not a lot of light, but we added dozens of close Pigeon Guillemots, Black Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Red-throated Loon, Surf Scoters, and three species of cormorants. The long sandy beach near our hotel had migrating Whimbrels for as far as we could see.

In Oceano Campground 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, Wilson’s Warblers, Warbling Vireo, and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

As we were approaching the Zaca Station Road exit, Jim and I saw a Yellow-billed Magpie that nobody else saw. After getting off the freeway, we turned up Zaca Station Road and in minutes had a gorgeous individual perched on a wire near our van. We spent about 30 minutes in this area and as we were about to leave, there was another individual perched on a sign by the fruit vendor…turns out he feeds them cherries. 

We checked into Island Packers and lined up so we would be the first on board and thus line up at the front of our catamaran for our ride to Santa Cruz Island. Fortunately, it was a calm day and we did not need the rain clothes. Several male California Sea Lions were on the first red buoy. A first year Heermann’s Gull flew over us as we left the harbor entrance. Soon three Gray Whales were spotted. There were some Common Murres seen on the way out, along with several Sooty Shearwaters and one Pink-footed Shearwater, one Rhinoceros Auklet, and some Scripp’s Murrelets.

While eating our picnic lunch, an Island Fox came scampering toward the picnic tables, affording wonderful views and opportunities for photos. Covering our food box to keep the Common Ravens from stealing food, we began birding the main road. Climbing up the steep unpaved road, we saw another Island Scrub-Jay and eventually got to see THREE male resident race Allen’s Hummingbirds, two of which put on a fighting and mating display for a female we did not see. We also picked up Chipping Sparrows before turning around and returning to the picnic tables. At the bottom of the hill we encountered a pair of Island Scrub-Jays feeding three juveniles. 

Join me next year for another great adventure in Southern California!