Birding Southern California ~ Part 1

September 6 – In the afternoon on September 5, I picked up four weary participants from LAX. They had flown ‘across the pond’ from London and were eager to their holiday in Southern California started. This, as you may have guessed, is a Limosa Holidays tour, and all four of the participants, two couples, I have had on several trips before so it’s great to already know everybody. On the drive from LAX tour our hotel in Santa Ana, we did see a few birds; European Starling, American Crow, Common Raven, American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk and Rock Pigeon.

We started nice and early on September 6, with lovely blue skies and comfortable temperatures. Before we left the parking lot of the hotel we had views of Orange-crowned Warbler and Black Phoebe. Our first birding stop was at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach. This lovely park, with sweeping views of the Pacific, is a great place to scan rocky shorelines for shorebirds. We found several really good species here including Surfbird, Black and Ruddy turnstones, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Willet. Way out on the ocean, groups of Black-vented Shearwaters steamed by, as did a few Elegant and Royal Terns. In the nicely manicured gardens of the area we picked up our first California Towhee as well as several Allen’s Hummingbirds.

Large waves rolling in at Laguna Beach, due to Hurricane Norbert. California, Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Large waves rolling in at Laguna Beach, due to Hurricane Norbert. California, Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth

Next stop was another good coastal vista, Crescent Beach Point Park. We parked the van on the road and soon thereafter found a gorgeous male Allen’s Hummingbird, showing off his green back nicely. Up in a eucalyptus tree there was a Black-headed Grosbeak, while down in some bushes we had a House Wren. Ahhhh…migration. Again, we scanned the rocky beach, this time spotting 4 Black Oystercatchers, and one person in our group got onto a Wandering Tattler before it flew away. Osprey constantly seemed to be around today, which is always a treat for birders from the U.K. where the species is less common. Our first marine mammals were noted here in the form of about 15 California Sea-Lions on the rocks, and a large pod of Common Dolphins well offshore.

Our next location proved to be very productive. We explored the chaparral habitat at Crystal Cove State Park for about 10 minutes before we even heard a bird chirp so I was a bit nervous. Then, it all happened. A pair of California Gnatcatchers appeared right alongside the path on which we were walking and we were able to stay with them and view these lovely little endangered birds for about 15 minutes.

California Gnatcatcher. Crystal Cove State Park, California. Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
California Gnatcatcher. Crystal Cove State Park, California. Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

As we were watching the gnatcatchers, I could hear the song of a California Thrasher up near the parking lot, so off we went in search of this bird. As soon as we entered the parking lot, we got a bit of a shock as a surfer (male) had stripped down to his birthday suit and was looking at us. We paid him little attention and went straight towards the thrasher which was singing away in a bush right alongside his camper van.

California Thrasher at Crystal Cove State Park, CA. Sept 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
California Thrasher at Crystal Cove State Park, CA. Sept 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Next on the menu, a group of 3 California Quail scuttled across a trail, though only two of the four participants saw them unfortunately. This charismatic species is actually much easier to find in the Okanagan Valley of Canada where I live, than it is here in its namesake California (at least in southern Cali). We then made our way over to a place where I had found Wrentit last year. As my luck would have it, two Wrentits were again there this year and they both showed off nicely. Feeling we had done very well at Crystal Cove we took a little break to have lunch.

After lunch we visited Back Bay in Newport, the home of North America’s newest bird, the Ridgeway’s Rail. We spent about an hour sifting through shorebirds first, before we even began looking for the rail. There were Willet, Marbled Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Western and Least sandpipers, Red Knot, Long-billed Curlew, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Black-bellied plovers, Killdeer and more to be seen on the mudflats here. We caught nice looks at ‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrows here as well, another potential future split. Overhead, the Ospreys continued, along with Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, an immature Red-shouldered Hawk and the usual Turkey Vultures. A group of unusual little birds zipped in, showing themselves briefly before flying off…Scaly-breasted Munia (or Nutmeg Mannikin). This is an introduced species, just recently added to the North American list. Then, we switched on to Ridgeway’s Rail duty. Why did they have to call it Ridgeway’s Rail? That is such a tongue-twister! Whenever we tried to say the name it either came out as Ridgeway’s Whale, or Widgeray’s Rail. Anyhow, that doesn’t matter. What matters is we had fantastic views of one as it stood at the edge of the marsh.

Ridgeway's Rail at Back Bay, Newport, CA. Sept 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Ridgeway’s Rail at Back Bay, Newport, CA. Sept 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

To finish off what had already been a great day, we visited one of my favorite locations in Orange County, the San Joaquin Nature Sanctuary. Here, shorebirds were abundant and we saw a few new species such as Long-billed Dowitcher, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet and Lesser Yellowlegs. There was a nice showing of herons here, with Great and Snowy egrets common, and a few Great Blue Herons roosting in tall eucalyptus trees. There was a nice little Green Heron fishing along the edge of one pond, and members of the tour group picked out an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron resting at the edge of the marsh. Ducks here, most new for the day, included Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged, Cinnamon, and Blue-winged teal and N. Shoveler. There were Pied-billed, Eared and both Clark’s and Western grebes here to look at. Both American White and Brown pelicans rested on the mudflats. Another flock of about 20 Scaly-breasted Munia were watched, and then all of a sudden a stunning bright orange bird appeared in the grasses, an Orange Bishop. This is yet another species introduced into the area, but this one is not yet officially countable on the list. What a stunner nonetheless. After having tallied over 90 species today we decided it was time to call it quits and head back to our hotel to cool off and have a little rest.

September 7 we left Santa Ana and headed south along the coast towards San Diego. We paused once at an ocean vista, a bit north of Oceanside, and had a few goodies here. There were California, Heermann’s and Western gulls right in the parking lot, as well as two obliging California Thrashers. In the chaparral below we had Wrentit, a California Gnatcatcher and our first Bewick’s Wren of the trip. We then turned east and headed inland through the mountains, destined for Anza-Borrego Desert. When we arrived in the town of Borrego Springs it was raining a bit, which is rare in itself for the south of California, so we decided to hunt for roadrunner in a trailer park where they have been known to reside. We couldn’t find the roadrunner here, but we did add our first Common Ground-Doves of the trip as well as several Costa’s Hummingbirds at a feeder.

At the headquarters of Anza-Borrego we walked the nature loop and it was pretty quiet, but we did have excellent views of our first Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, as well as a lovely Loggerhead Shrike. A White-winged Dove flew off before giving us good views, but we saw it nonetheless. We had lunch on a bench in the shade, then explored the visitor’s center before heading back to the parking lot. Just as we entered the parking lot I saw a Greater Roadrunner sitting on a rock under a tree. Yes!! I am always relieved when we get this much sought-after desert bird on the list.

Greater Roadrunner at Anza Borrego Desert, California. Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Greater Roadrunner at Anza Borrego Desert, California. Sep 2014. Chris Charlesworth

We then visited Palm Canyon Campground, where the big highlight was four ‘Desert’ Bighorn Sheep! Sue stayed back in the shade by a pond and spotted a Black-throated Sparrow which was luckily still around by the time we got back. We also saw a few Rock Wrens about.

To finish off the birding, we paused at Tamarisk Grove Campground, which is often good for migrants. Last year we found a Kentucky Warbler here. Nothing rare this year, but it was still nice to see Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, alongside Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Also here, Bewick’s Wren and an obliging Ash-throated Flycatcher, so it wasn’t a bust after all. We carried on to Brawley at the south end of the Salton Sea, where we spend the next couple of nights. As we pulled into our hotel, we tallied our first Great-tailed Grackles at the water fountain. Thunder clouds looming overhead this evening.

Chris Charlesworth

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