Day 1, August 29 – The first day of our Southern California tour was a travel day for most people. We met as a group at our hotel in Orange County in the evening for dinner, however Clive Keen and Ellen did a little hotel birding, finding an exotic Japanese White-eye outside their rooms. Otherwise, in the bird department, we had little else, except an American Kestrel atop a telephone pole and a Killdeer calling after dark. We got some much needed rest this evening in preparation for a big day of birding ahead.
Day 2, August 30 – We left our hotel at 7 AM and fought our way through some morning traffic down to the scenic and prosperous areas of southern Orange County at Laguna Beach. The birders were vibrating with excitement in the van as we pulled into the parking space at Heisler Park. Almost as soon as we got our gear around our necks, the first exciting bird of the tour appeared, a young male Allen’s Hummingbird. The hummingbird was soon followed by more excitement; Black Phoebe, Brown Pelican,
Western Gulls, Song Sparrow and an Orange-crowned Warbler. On offshore rocks were Brandt’s Cormorants, Heermann’s Gulls and a Willet that almost got snagged by a marauding Peregrine Falcon. The Willet resorted to swimming in the ocean for a few minutes which proved to be a useful tactic to avoid being caught by the falcon. Down on a little patch of rocky beach below us we saw our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip, and this sighting was soon eclipsed by the appearance of a much more sought-after shorebird, a nice juvenile Wandering Tattler. In addition to nice birds this location was very lovely with sweeping views of the Pacific. Our next stop was nearby at Crescent Beach where we saw a large group of Brandt’s Cormorants on an island not far offshore. On the rocky shoreline here we picked up a Black Oystercatcher, as well as Whimbrel and more Willets. An Osprey made a pass overhead, while out over the ocean were Caspian Terns and a single distant Elegant Tern.
Allen’s Hummingbirds were fairly numerous here, zipping about amongst the flowers in the gardens. Some rather scruffy looking Northern Mockingbirds were the first for the trip.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Crystal Cove State Park where, even before we had left the parking lot, we’d had stunning views of California Thrasher and California Towhee. Two Wrentits also appeared in the scrub next to the parking lot, and our first California Ground-Squirrels of the tour were noted here as well. A scan of the beach below produced our first Black Turnstone of the tour. Excitement broke out as soon as I heard the kitten-like mewing of another of California’s specialty species, a California Gnatcatcher. The tiny bird flitted about in the chaparral, showing nicely for us, as another bird ‘mewed’ in the distance.
Ahead of schedule we made our way to Newport Bay, otherwise known as Back Bay, where we followed a nice drive alongside the estuary. Birds were abundant here, especially shorebirds, and we tallied Western and Least sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Killdeer and a nice Long-billed Curlew. Our first Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets were noted here, and we had scope views of ‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrows here. Try as we might, Ridgway’s Rails were uncooperative. We heard one calling very loudly from the wetland right in front of us, but only Ian managed to get a view of the top of its head. In the bushes alongside the road were Common Yellowthroats, Bushtits, a Lesser Goldfinch and some exotics including a group of Scaly-breasted Munias, and a female Pin-tailed Whydah, the latter of which, while a nice bird, is not yet officially countable on the ABA checklist. Before we vacated Newport Bay we paused to look down upon a nice assembly of Black Skimmers on the mudflats.
After lunch we headed for San Joaquin Sanctuary in Irvine. In the parking area we had some of our nicest birds including a Cassin’s Kingbird, Yellow Warblers, and best of all a singing ‘Least’ Bell’s Vireo. We walked the trails, checking various ponds along the way, some of which were teeming with shorebirds. In addition to the species we had already seen today, we added Semipalmated Plovers, Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and a locally uncommon Solitary Sandpiper at San Joaquin. On one of the ponds we had nice comparisons of Western and Clark’s grebes together. Nobody was more visibly excited than Clive when two Red-shouldered Hawks sailed by overhead showing off all their field marks. As we departed San Joaquin, a family of Raccoons crossed the road in front of us, which was a little surprising seeing that it was 3 PM and 35 degrees Celsius.
Our final stop of the day, at the Imperial Highway Bridge over the Santa Ana River, produced the avian highlight of the day, a long-staying Ruff, and it was a North American lifer for all present….except me. The bird was rather stunning, appearing to be a molting male, and had lovely blotched plumage as well as an orange and black bill and bright orange legs. High fives and lifer dances followed. In addition to the Ruff, many other shorebirds were present, with another new species being Greater Yellowlegs. Clive pointed out an immature White-faced Ibis as well. We returned to our hotel for a little break before dinner. We tallied up our list and found we had seen over 80 species today!
Day 3, August 31 – Reluctantly we left the coast this morning and made our way towards the desert, pausing in the city of Escondido to pick up some lunch. The temperature gradually increased as we headed inland as did the famed ‘Santa Ana winds’. Birds seen on the first part of our drive were mostly the common city dwellers, but we did see a couple of nice Red-shouldered Hawks and two large kettles of Turkey Vultures. A stop at the Inaja Memorial Park produced little, mostly because of the howling wind. We had distant views of a California Scrub-Jay here, and we could hear an Acorn Woodpecker calling up the hill.
We stopped at Tamarisk Grove Campground in Anza-Borrego Park, where we found a shady picnic table and had our lunch. While birds were not abundant, we did have some nice ones here including Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler and two female Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Our first White-tailed Antelope Squirrel of the trip, a tiny and rather adorable critter, scurried past on the hot desert sands. We carried on to Borrego Springs, pausing briefly at the Anza-
Borrego Visitor’s Center, where the highlight was seeing several dapper Black-throated Sparrows, mostly hiding in the shade. The heat was becoming almost too much to handle, as the temperatures had soared to over 40 degrees Celsius so our next stop was a much appreciated one, for ice cream. We then cruised around the Roadrunner Club, a golf course and trailer park, with irrigated greens and ponds, where we found over 20 species of birds. New for our list were Common Ground-Doves, White-winged Dove, a Say’s Phoebe, and several Greater Roadrunners! Locally uncommon, a Bank Swallow made a brief pass by, and an incredibly large snouted Long-billed Curlew wandered about at the edge of a pond. The afternoon was getting on so we continued on our journey, eventually catching a glimpse of the Salton Sea. Our final destination for the evening was the city of El Centro where we checked into our hotel and then went for dinner at a nearby establishment.
Day 4, September 1 – Our morning began early today, as we wanted to take advantage of the relative cool of the morning. As luck would have it, this was also the opening day of dove hunting season, so all the hunters had the same idea as us. In the murky light of dawn we made our way towards the south end of the famous Salton Sea. Fields full of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis, both numbering into the thousands, made for a spectacle. Our first birding spot was at the Wister Unit, where legendary San Diego
birder Guy McCaskie had told me to go to find two of our target species; Least Bittern and the ‘Yuma’ race of the Ridgway’s Rail. It didn’t take us long to find both of these target species, and they put on a nice show for us indeed. The ‘pop, pop, pop’ sound of guns echoed through the air as the hunters took their quotas of doves. We later found out by chatting with one hunter that they can shoot 15 Mourning Doves and unlimited numbers of Eurasian Collared-Doves per day for a two week period. As we cruised along the roads at the southeast corner of the sea this morning we tallied an impressive 22 Burrowing Owls! Also about in good numbers were American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes and Greater Roadrunners.
A short stop at Red Hill Marina produced two roosting Lesser Nighthawks as well as our first Abert’s Towhee, a Yellow Warbler and quite a long Glossy Snake! Flooded fields here
and there delayed our arrival to the actual see, but that was ok because we saw some nice birds including huge numbers of American White Pelicans, Forster’s Terns, Black Terns and various shorebirds. At Obsidian Butte we finally reached the shores of the sea and we were rewarded with sightings of up to 20 adult Yellow-footed Gulls, the real specialty species of the Salton Sea. In addition to the Yellow-footeds, we saw several Laughing Gulls here. Shorebirds were abundant and we tallied Marbled Godwits, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least and Western sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers and a nice bonus, a Snowy Plover. A visit to the headquarters of the Sonny Bono NWR was very productive as migrant birds including Nashville, Wilson’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, Bullock’s Orioles,
Western Tanager, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo and more were feasting around a patch of mud. The songbirds were scattered when an adult Cooper’s Hawk appeared on the scene however. A small number of Gambel’s Quail played hide and seek with us through the underbrush, while a female Phainopepla showed quite nicely up in a palm.
Temperatures now nearing 40 degrees Celsius, we returned to Brawley and had lunch before taking a look for hummingbird feeders along Willard Ave in the pleasant residential area of town. We were not disappointed as within a few minutes of our arrival we tallied singles of Anna’s, Black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds. Our final birding destination of the day was Cattle Call Park. The big target species here was Gila Woodpecker and again within a few seconds of our arrival we were looking at a pair of them through the scope. A few migrants were about in the trees with Nashville Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and best of all a molting ‘tail-less’ Lucy’s Warbler, locally quite uncommon. Ann spotted a Lark Sparrow foraging on the ground, our first of that species for the tour. We headed back to El Centro and had an afternoon siesta before venturing out for a delicious dinner at Chili’s. We tallied up our bird list for the day to find we’d seen 99 species!
Day 5, September 2 – Another early start ensured we were on site bright and early at the Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, where our highlight was two Vermilion Flycatchers. First we spotted a rather drab, but still attractive female and then the main event, a lovely male. Other species seen included a brief encounter with a Townsend’s Warbler, a flyover Gila Woodpecker and a few other bits and pieces. As we made our way up Hwy
111 towards the S.E corner of the Salton Sea, we paused to scan through a flooded field that was absolutely full of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis. Quite a few shorebirds were also mixed in and we managed to add three new species here; Baird’s Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper and a Wilson’s Phalarope. Our first sighting of Western Meadowlark came from this area as well. We then headed for Ramer Lake, where the ‘pop pop’ of dove hunters’ guns echoed through the air. We picked out a couple of Neotropic Cormorants among the many Double-cresteds here, and added some other goodies such as Ruddy Duck and Yellow-headed Blackbird. One each of Western and Clark’s grebe was good to see again today. We carried on up the eastern side of the sea, pausing to pick up lunch before we began our ascent of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Our first stop in the mountains provided somewhat cooler temperatures and some excellent birds like White-throated Swift, Oak Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickakdee, Western Bluebird, and best of all a stunning female White-headed Woodpecker. Clive was beside himself, as this was one of, if not the bird he wanted most on this trip! Next up at Hurkey Creek Park we had some lunch and then explored the area which was packed with Labour Day Weekend campers and such. Birding was good
nonetheless and it didn’t take us long to amass quite a list including Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Vaux’s Swift, and a fleeting Hermit Warbler. In Idyllwild we paused for refreshments before exploring a little bit near the school of arts, where we saw our first ‘Oregon’ race Dark-eyed Juncos of the tour, as well as our first Spotted Towhee. A very long, yet scraggly tailed Western Gray Squirrel was the first of that species we encountered on the trip. We then began the drive to 29 Palms, and Ellen and Ann spotted a Golden Eagle from the van on the journey. Dinner, at the Rib Co. was yummy as usual.
Day 6, September 3 – As we emerged from our hotel the sun was just rising and the desert temperatures were comfortable this morning. We headed for the 29 Palms Oasis Visitor’s Center where we had our first views of the big and boisterous Cactus Wren, about 6 of them to be exact. Other residents of the oasis included a nice Greater Roadrunner, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Verdin. Though we saw Barn Owl pellets, we saw no Barn Owl. We then entered Joshua Tree National Park where we spent the rest of the morning. Our first stop, a formidable rock formation, produced our first Rock Wrens
of the tour. As we proceeded farther into the park the bizarre Joshua Trees got bigger and more twisted and contorted. Loggerhead Shrikes perched on the tops of the trees and we must have seen close to half a dozen of them. Another stop yielded the bird of the day for us, a flock of up to 35 Pinyon Jays! The noisy, sociable jays put on a nice show for us amongst the pinyon pines this morning. A walk to Barker Dam was pleasant, though we couldn’t stir up any Canyon Wrens. We did see California Scrub-Jay, Black-throated Sparrows, Warbling Vireo, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and Clive nailed his 500th ABA bird, a lovely little Brewer’s Sparrow! Congratulations Clive. New for the mammal list was a California Chipmunk.
We picked up lunch in Joshua Tree and took it with us to Covington Park where just as we pulled into the parking space a male Vermilion Flycatcher briefly appeared. After we ate our lunch we searched for, and found Summer Tanagers. We had a female and a young splotchy red and yellow male in the eucalyptus trees here. Score! We then headed over to Big Morongo Preserve where we watched the hummingbird feeders for a half an hour or so. Visitors to the feeders including Anna’s, Allen’s, Black-chinned and several gorgeous female and male Costa’s hummingbirds. We then drove on to Mojave where we are to spend the next two nights.
Day 7, September 4 – After breakfast we made our way east from Mojave to Jawbone Canyon, where we spent the better part of two hours walking in the desert looking for an elusive and sought-after species, the Le Conte’s Thrasher. Just as we were about to give up I spotted one of them atop a Creosote bush near the big Los Angeles aqueduct pipe. Ellen spotted a second bird, running along the ground with its long tail held up in a wren
like fashion. We enjoyed lengthy scope views of the thrashers and a sigh of relief could be heard throughout the group, and from me as well. Other goodies in the canyon included several ‘canescens’ race Bell’s Sparrows and some Rock Wrens. In the trees at the rangers station I spotted a roosting Great Horned Owl, and Ian got another lifer, as a group of 5 Chukar scurried up a hill nearby.
Feeling as though we had done quite well at Jawbone we headed for California City where we picked up lunch and took it with us to the Silver Saddle Resort. Out in the middle of the barren and scorched Mojave Desert this resort provides green trees, water features and respite for the migrant birds. We did quite well here with migrants adding several species to the trip list such as Lincoln’s Sparrow, Gray Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher and a Vesper Sparrow. Around the ponds we found our first Belted Kingfisher of the tour, as well as Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and a group of 10 Black-necked Stilts. Two roosting Great Horned Owls were a nice surprise in the trees
here, with one of the pair being significantly paler than the other. In the trees, Say’s Phoebes, Black Phoebes, Western Wood-Pewees and Willow Flycatcher were quite common. Around the patio were a dozen or so very ratty looking molting Great-tailed Grackles. Warblers were not numerous but we did find an Orange-crowned Warbler and a Wilson’s Warbler, the latter of which, a male, that was hopping about foraging for insects on the ground right in front of us. We enjoyed some ice cold water in the resort lobby before making the short journey back to Mojave for a little afternoon downtime.
Day 8, September 5 – From Mojave we made our way south to Lancaster and Apollo County Park, via the ‘Singing Road’. Once at the park we got out the scopes and scanned through a flock of geese, adding several new species to the trip list. Canada Goose was in fact a new trip bird, as were singles of Ross’s, Snow and Greater White-fronted geese as well. We picked up lunch in Lancaster and then began our ascent into the San Gabriel Mountains. Our first stop was at Monte Cristo Campground where there was quite a bit of bird activity this morning. There were Western Bluebirds, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, and
best of all a good number of Larwrence’s Goldfinches here. We estimated upwards of 20 goldfinches at this location. We carried on farther up into the pine trees, stopping next at the Chilao Visitor’s Center. Here, there were again quite a number of Lawrence’s Goldfinches. This surprised me since in about 8 tours that I have done to the area, I have never seen a single Lawrence’s Goldfinch in the San Gabriels. This must be a bumper year for these beautiful finches. Also at Chilao were Acorn, Nuttall’s and the show stopper, White-headed Woodpeckers. Next stop on the agenda was at the Buckhorn Campground, where as we drove down into the area we encountered a Coyote right beside the van. We had lunch in the lovely shade and slightly cooler temperatures that the higher elevation provided to us. After lunch a stroll produced some good birds including our first Brown Creeper, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Cassin’s Vireo, the latter of which was a nice find by Ellen. Several ‘Thick-billed’ Fox Sparrows called in the area, and briefly
appeared, but left us wanting better views. Up towards the 7000 ft Cloudburst Summit we made several stops and I tried to attract a Northern Pygmy-Owl, without any luck. In the process of whistling for the owl I did attract what must have been at least 100 Mountain Chickadees, as well as a variety of other species such as White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s warblers, Oak Titmouse, Spotted Towhee, Cassin’s Finches and several Clark’s Nutcrackers. We had singles of Pacific-slope Flycatcher and our one and only Hammond’s Flycatcher of the tour here. At this point in the afternoon we began our drive which took us along the northern edge of the Los Angeles basin to the 101 Hwy which in turn led us to our destination of Carpinteria where we will stay for the next three nights.
Day 9, September 6 – After breakfast we headed for the Santa Barbara Marina where we met up with our boat, the Condor Express, which took us out into Santa Barbara Channel for the morning in search of whales and seabirds. Before we’d even left the shore we’d seen some nice birds including a flock of Black Skimmers, along with a few Heermann’s Gulls and Royal Terns. As we headed out of the marina we paused briefly to look at a group of lounging California Sea-Lions on a buoy. As we steamed out farther in the channel we did see some interesting birds including a Parasitic Jaeger, several Elegant Terns, Brown Pelicans, Red-necked Phalaropes, Brandt’s Cormorants and even farther out, Black-vented Shearwaters. Several of us had reasonable views of Black Storm-Petrels out here today as well, but surely the highlight must have been the sighting of several Blue Whales, the largest creature to ever inhabit the earth. In addition to the whales we had nice encounters with Common Dolphins out here today. Back on dry land, and not soon enough for a couple of us, we discovered that our van had been the target of a pooping Black-crowned Night-Heron that was roosting in the tree overhead. Now with distinctive field marks on our vehicle we headed to Devereux Slough, but the tide was out so there were really not many birds present. In the trees near the slough were Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, but little else. I decided to go and try another location nearby, Los Carneros Lake, and this proved to be quite a productive stop. Soon after arriving we located a Hutton’s Vireo, our first for the
tour and not long after that we had lovely views of two White-tailed Kites sitting in the trees nearby. Also present were California Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, California Towhee, Cassin’s Kingbird, Scaly-breasted Munia and a variety of other passerines. On the lake were a lot of Mallards, along with some Gadwall and a nice comparison of both Western and Clark’s grebes. We made our way back to Carpinteria, feeling a bit exhausted after a day on the water.
Day 10, September 7 – This morning we split into two groups including those that wanted to head off to Santa Cruz Island and those that did not want to head out onto the seas, as they were forecast to be quite rough. Two people opted to head for Santa Cruz Island, Ian and Ann, and they were rewarded by the efforts, with excellent sightings of the endemic Island Scrub-Jays that live there.
Myself, Clive and Ellen opted to explore birding sites in the Ventura area. We began at Ventura Harbor where the beach provided some nice sightings, especially in the shorebird department. There were Sanderlings here, our first for the tour, along with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds, as well as Willets. Also of note here was a distant
Wandering Tattler and two oystercatchers, one a classic Black Oystercatcher, and the other a hybrid between that species and American Oystercatcher. Out over the waves were a dozen or so Elegant Terns and the usual Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls and Brandt’s Cormorants were also tallied for the day list.
Our next stop was at the Oxnard Plain, a flat area with a lot of agriculture, which especially featured strawberries as we found out. A short walk down to a sandy beach provided sightings of Whimbrel, and a lot of Marbled Godwit, including a leucistic bird that we labeled a ‘Snowy Godwit’. There was a recycling plant here and we could see blackbirds disappearing into the complex where we couldn’t see them, which was
frustrating since our target species was Tricolored Blackbird. We decided we’d tried for long enough and headed off to our next destination which was Sycamore Canyon at Point Mugu State Park. We found this to be quite a lovely location, with a good number of birds, one of which, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, thanks to running into Jon Dunn and his tour group. Little groups of birds roaming about the campground included Oak Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, Western Bluebird, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee and White-breasted Nuthatch. We walked farther into the canyon stumbling upon a group of 10 or so California Quail. The raucous calls of parakeets suddenly filled the canyon and to our surprise we were surrounded by a noisy group of Nanday Parakeets! This species, native to Brazil and Argentina, has recently made inroads as an established breeding species in Southern California, and we were treated to quite a show by the birds. Forty-seven of them were included in the group by estimate, and they fed, called and preened one another as we watched.
Our next stop was at McGrath State Beach, which was closed, though the park warden let us in, saying, ‘I didn’t see you’. Our visit was fairly quick as we scrambled over the sand dunes, flushing up a few Horned Larks as we went along. At the beach we scanned the shore finding the usual suspects, and on a tidal lagoon we had good views of Pied-billed and Clark’s grebes. A Peregrine Falcon posed nicely on a piece of wood near the shore, and then it was flushed by a photographer that just got a little too close.
I decided one more try for the Tricolored Blackbird was in order and as luck would have it we were rewarded with the sighting of a mixed group of Tricolored, Red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds on a turf farm. We returned to the Ventura Harbor where we met up with the other two who had just returned from the island. Our final dinner of the tour, at a local Italian joint was quite nice.
Day 11, September 8 – It was our final morning in sunny California and we made our way from Carpinteria north, along the 101 Hwy to Alisal Road, an area of ranches and rolling, oak tree dotted hillsides about an hour from our hotel. It didn’t take us long, once we had arrived in the proper habitat, to find the target bird for the morning, the Yellow-billed Magpie. There were about 30 of them foraging in the area. A group of California
Quail were good to see as well, alongside the road, as they too picked up seeds from the ground. At Nojoqui Falls County Park we were impressed by the numbers of Acorn Woodpeckers present. An American Robin, only our second for the tour, was seen on the grass in the park, and we added our one and only Purple Finch for the tour here. Our only Mule Deer of the trip were noted in this area too.
Our final birding stop of the trip was at Refugio State Beach and here we added two more species to our trip list, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Pelagic Cormorant, bringing the tally for the trip to 219, not counting heard birds or uncountable exotics such as Japanese White-Eye and Pin-tailed Whydah. We dropped off Ann at the airport in Santa Barbara, and then carried on via busy freeways to L.A.X. where the other remaining folks were dropped off. It was a fantastic tour, complete with great birds and great company.