Winter Southern California Jan 22—28, 2017
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Last year I was afraid El Niño was going to wash us out. This year La Niña almost did! This winter has proven to be much wetter in California than last year when we were expecting it, but never got it. In fact, San Diego has already exceeded its average annual rainfall by mid-February. Yes, our Winter Southern California tour was challenged by this abundance of much needed moisture, but we more than rose to the challenge. In fact, we saw more species of birds on this year’s tour than we ever had in the past! We got rained on a bit and snowed out one day, but dealt with it (along with some mud and wind) better than I could have hoped.
In San Diego we visited the coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats of the coast, finding such specialties as California Quail, California Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, and California Towhee. We scored rarities from Mexico like Thick-billed Kingbird and Painted Redstart. We enjoyed huge numbers of waterbirds in coastal bays and estuaries, tallying 27 species of ducks/geese, 10 species of herons/egrets, 22 species of shorebirds, and 11 species of gulls/terns. We enjoyed watching huge waves crashing into the cliffs at La Jolla, as California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals rested on the cliffs and beaches, and Brown Pelicans roosted at arm’s-length.
Our first effort to bird in the mountains was thwarted by heavy snow closing the roads, but we were able to visit the higher elevations on our last day and found it to be a gorgeous winter landscape that is quite unusual this far south. Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Steller’s Jay, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Oak Titmouse all cooperated nicely for us up there despite the unusually cold temperatures.
Down below sea level, in the Imperial Valley, we found desert birds like Gambel’s Quail, Gila and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhee. We scoured the agricultural areas for some special birds that have made themselves at home in this man-made landscape. We saw many charismatic little Burrowing Owls sitting at the entrance to their homes, and we found the scarce and declining Mountain Plover blending in quite nicely to a bare dirt field. Greater Roadrunners darted between stands of mesquite and saltbush as breathtakingly large flocks of blackbirds and gulls streamed overhead. We made it out to the shore of the Salton Sea, which is becoming smaller every day now. Unfortunately, the future of this incredible resource for migratory birds is quite dim unless something can be done soon to stabilize the water levels. For now, large numbers of gulls, shorebirds, ducks, cormorants, and pelicans can still be found loafing on the shoreline, and the scenery is certainly otherworldly.
In all, we tallied 200 species of birds during five days of birding in beautiful and unique Southern California. I’m already looking forward to trying to break our record next year, and I hope you’ll join me.