California Specialties Apr 28—May 07, 2017

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 31 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 2017 tour.

Our birding began at Murray Lake, a special area I have never birded but which was scouted for me by Phil Pryde. He had a wonderful male Allen’s Hummingbird staked out for us, but even better was the incredible show we got from a pair of California Gnatcatchers (federally threatened species)…my best show to date. Next was the Deerfield Pump Station entrance to Mission Trails Regional Park, looking for several species typical of the coastal sage scrub. We had cooperative California and Spotted towhees, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and a quick view of California Thrasher. Next was a distant Rock Wren down in the huge rock pit, but then Rufous-crowned Sparrow also cooperated for up-close photos. Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve produced superb looks at Bell’s Vireo, Cassin’s Kingbirds, breeding plumage Eared Grebes and Ruddy Ducks, dozens of spectacular male Wood Ducks and, best of all, an adult male Scaly-breasted Munia.

We drove to the mouth of the San Diego River where Caspian, Royal, Elegant, and Forster’s terns were easily seen. The Black Skimmers were also on the other side of the bridges where we added Little Blue Heron and a number of shorebirds. Three Western Grebes were nice to see here. The tide was high at the J Street mudflats, but we added Least (only seen three times on the previous 20 tours) and Gull-billed terns, as well as Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and Greater Yellowlegs. Then it was off to the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. We spent about forty minutes watching dozens of birds coming in to feed at the silk oak trees. We saw breeding plumage Yellow, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Black-throated Gray, and Townsend’s warblers, along with Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Common Ground-Doves. Our last stop of the day was at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge near Imperial Beach, where we saw a distant, juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and I had my best ever view of Ridgway’s Rail when a pair walked up to about 12 feet away from us.

Kitchen Creek Road was superb with Phainopepla, California Thrasher, Western Bluebirds, Lazuli Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Rock Wren, Steller’s Jays, Black-chinned Sparrows, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Bullock’s and Scott’s orioles. We all heard Mountain Quail but only John glimpsed one. Near the Border Patrol Station, we tried for Bell’s Sparrow, and two gave us great views.  We struck pay dirt in Jacumba with excellent views of Tricolored Blackbirds.

At the small Santa Ysabel Mission we had super looks at a male Lawrence’s Goldfinch. As we headed down into Anza-Borrego State Park, the forest vegetation changed completely to desert vegetation. On our way through the park, we stopped briefly in the canyon to pick up Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, and White-winged Dove. At Tamarisk Grove Campground we added Ladder-backed Woodpecker and two Long-eared Owls.

Our first destination today was near the hotel where I called in a Gilded Flicker.  At Finney Lake we saw Clark’s and Western grebes, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, White-faced Ibis, Abert’s Towhees, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Inca and other doves, and a Lesser Nighthawk. However, the class act today was seeing a pair of Least Bitterns and their three juveniles!

As we headed toward the Salton Sea we had great looks at Burrowing Owls, and at a nice shallow pond we found a Baird’s Sandpiper. The Loggerhead Shrike was our first of the tour, as was the pair of Gambel’s Quail. We spent a long time looking through the birds for rarities. We did get Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, and Gadwall in the next pond at the intersection. Along Schrimpf Road to Red Hill we added more ducks, grebes, White Pelicans, and then about 500 or more Red-necked Phalaropes on the pond. As we worked our way down the levees, we were rewarded with Black-bellied and Semipalmated plovers, Dunlin, Sanderling, an adult Herring Gull, and many Gull-billed Terns. Best were the Snowy Plovers, one of which was being followed by its chick.

On the way back out of Ramer Lake, I spotted a Crissal Thrasher perched on a distant dead tree. Before we headed out on the long walk to the edge of the Salton Sea, two Yellow-footed Gulls flew over us. I had never made this long walk before, but yesterday we could see all the birds from Obsidian Dome, and I knew this trail would get us close. Verdins called from several mesquites and palo verdes, along with some migrants like Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak. We had great views of many species and also found a new one for the tour, Stilt Sandpiper. With the sun at our backs, the views were great. Gerald found a juvenile Killdeer in its nest. 

At Big Morongo Canyon Reserve we enjoyed the 12 feeders near the host’s trailer as we watched Hooded Oriole, Western Tanagers, Lesser Goldfinches, and Black-chinned, Rufous, and Anna’s hummingbirds. At Covington Park we had to work hard to see the Vermilion Flycatcher, but it was worth it since we found the nest and could see the female shading three juveniles. A birder told us about a Great Horned Owl, and we also got to see and photograph two large juveniles that had fledged from the nest. A nesting pair of Western Bluebirds was also seen.

We had to work hard on Mt. Pinos for Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches, Steller’s Jay, Band-tailed Pigeon, Olive-sided Flycatcher (heard only), Purple Finch, and White-headed Woodpecker. The big surprise was seeing two Lawrence’s Goldfinches. It was nice to see Townsend’s and Hermit warblers. On a hunch, I played Green-tailed Towhee in a new location, and a pair responded. On the way to Taft, we tried for Le Conte’s Thrasher, and John spotted one that I was able to call back.

The next morning we drove slowly up the winding Cerro Noroeste Road through open grasslands, seeing dozens of Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. We stopped briefly at one location in the pinyon pine forest where we picked up Gray Flycatcher. Several miles up the road, we visited the closed down Mil Potrero Campground, and I immediately heard the “quick-three-beers” of an Olive-sided Flycatcher. We got scope views of 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: Dusky Flycatcher, Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Clark’s Nutcracker. However, it was the 5 minutes of staring at a male Mountain Quail as it perched on a rock 35 feet away that was most enjoyable for me.

I planned to stop again today at three locations to scan the skies for California Condor. Lady luck was with us, as two minutes after we got out of the van, two flew right over our heads and down into the valley below. We went to the next stop at the famous place called “THE SIGN,” and Gerald spotted a distant one along a far ridge. At the last stop, where we saw the two yesterday, we found another. Four California Condors in one afternoon!

We then headed down to Los Alamos County Park where Yellow-billed Magpies had always cooperated beautifully prior to the last two tours. However, this year we saw five on fence rails as we cruised down the freeway, and then one immediately as we entered the park. They were easily photographed along with some Acorn Woodpeckers. 

On our way to the boat dock, we headed to the mouth of a nearby river to see if we could find any new species. We were very lucky, picking up a close Parasitic Jaeger, two Ruddy Turnstones, and some fairly close Black-vented Shearwaters (all three new for the tour). When we checked into Island Packers we discovered that they had canceled all trips to Santa Cruz today due to 7–10 foot swells. Weather has only canceled this boat trip once before, so I created Plan B. We found the Santa Clara River estuary where we were able to pick up some new species and get very good looks at some of the shorebirds. Two winter plumaged Bonaparte’s Gulls flew past us, and later we walked along the sandy beach getting closer and closer to Sanderlings, Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and one Snowy Plover. We also enjoyed a great show as a Peregrine Falcon flushed everything in the area.

The next part of Plan B involved calling my college trackmate, John TePaske, to see if he was able to take us on a cruise of Ventura Harbor. We found a group of Western and Clark’s grebes in a protected corner and were able to get great photos of both. I spotted a single Wandering Tattler (new) that allowed photos. As it was getting to be time to turn around and head back for the dock, I spotted another new bird for us, Surfbird, and it too allowed photos! What a wonderful way to end our adventure in Ventura Harbor.