Birding Southern California – Part 1

August 24 – Mid-afternoon I met my group of 5 birders from the U.K.  and we quickly made our way out of LAX and onto the busy freeway, bound for Santa Ana. Though it is only about 50 km from LAX, the drive took about 1.5 hours due to heavy traffic. Not many birds were noted on the drive, other than the usual Eurasian Collared-Doves, Feral Rock Pigeons, and American Crows. After arriving at our hotel we took advantage of the lovely evening and walked to the local restaurant for dinner.

 

August 25 – After breakfast we fought our way from our hotel through the morning traffic down to Laguna Beach in Orange County. Our first stop at Heisler Park was excellent for birds, in particular waders. Small rocky islands just offshore had a nice assortment of waders including Surfbirds, Black and Ruddy turnstones, Whimbrel, Willet, Black-bellied Plover and a couple of Wandering Tattlers. Also on these rocks were numerous Brandt’s Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s and Western gulls. We watched far offshore as perhaps up to 100 Black-vented Shearwaters cruised by. A few Royal and Elegant terns were also thrown into the mix. Flowering bushes at Heisler Park had several female type Allen’s Hummingbirds that were constantly chasing one another around. Up to 20 Bushtits flitted about nervously in the trees right in front of us. A Black Phoebe sat on a cliff face and a pair of California Towhees put on a nice show for the group as well.

California Towhee at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth
California Towhee at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth

Our next stop was at Crescent Bay where upon leaving the van we got the first Northern Mockingbirds of the tour as they dive-bombed some marauding American Crows. Again there was a nice variety of waders including up to five Black Oystercatchers and a couple more Wandering Tattlers. A fishing boat went past quite close to shore and was surrounded by a cloud of terns, mostly Elegant with a few Royals mixed in.

Laguna Beach, California is a very nice place to spend a morning. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Laguna Beach, California is a very nice place to spend a morning. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Crystal Cove State Park was excellent for birds of the California Chaparral habitat including the endangered California Gnatcatcher. We saw at least five of these tiny birds. We enjoyed good views of a pair of Wrentits here as well as our first California Thrasher!

California Thrasher at Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
California Thrasher at Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Penny exclaimed that she had found a snake beside the path, but she wasn’t sure it was alive so I hurried to investigate. Sure enough it was alive and it was a nice specimen of Western Rattlesnake!

Western Rattlesnake. Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Western Rattlesnake. Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

After lunch we made our way to Newport Bay and once we hopped out of the van we immediately realized it had warmed up substantially since the morning coastal cloud had burned off. Birding was sensational at the bay and we had great views of up to 4 Ridgway’s Rails, a recently split member of the Clapper Rail complex. Waders were abundant here and we scanned through flocks finding Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Short-billed Dowitcher, Western and Least sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer and more. A subadult Little Blue Heron, decked out in white plumage, was a surprise for me to see here as it is fairly rare in the area. Other herons here included Great and Snowy egrets, Great Blue Herons and a very obliging Green Heron.

Green Heron at Newport Bay in Orange County, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Green Heron at Newport Bay in Orange County, California. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Up to three Northern Harriers sailed low over the marsh spooking hundreds of birds in the process while in the sky above were several Osprey and Turkey Vultures. A few waterbirds found today included Pied-billed Grebes, a male Surf Scoter, a Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall and the omnipresent Mallard. Forster’s Terns foraged in canals while an immature Black Skimmer practiced skimming. We had to tear ourselves away from Newport Bay in order to get to the next location, the San Joaquin Sanctuary, before it was too late. Birding here was also superb with oodles of waders to be seen. These freshwater lagoons held Long-billed Dowitchers, Wilson’s Phalaropes, numerous American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts and Semipalmated Plovers to name a few species. Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail were all added to the trip list here, along with American Coot and excellent views of Clark’s and Western grebes. Just as we left the sanctuary, a nice adult Red-shouldered Hawk appeared and sat in a dead tree for us to view through the scope. We paused to have one more look at some distant American White Pelicans when two birds appeared in the trees in front of us, a Willow Flycatcher and a Bell’s Vireo. Also here, in a weedy area, we noted a large flock of Scaly-breasted Munias and a stunning male Northern Red Bishop, the latter of which is not officially countable just yet in North America. By the end of the day we had tallied just short of 90 species which is a pretty good start by my standards.

 

August 26 – Reluctantly we left behind the lovely palm trees and coastal vistas of Orange County today and made our way south and then east into the Anza-Borrego Desert. Along the way we stopped to view some very nice Red-tailed Hawks along the roadside. A quick stop at the Inaja Memorial Park provided a couple of firsts for our tour; Acorn Woodpecker and Western Scrub-Jay.

We emerged from the van at Tamarisk Grove Campground and discovered the temperature had warmed up considerably so we birded by the method of scurrying from one shady spot to the next. There was not too much present here in the mid-day heat, but we did have good looks at both Blue-gray and Black-tailed gnatcatchers, both new for the tour. A single immature Black-throated Sparrow was a nice catch as were a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. The vegetation had changed considerably since we left the coast and  now we were among desert plants like Ocotillo, Teddy Bear Cholla, Barrel Cactus and Creosote.

At the Anza-Borrego Desert Visitor’s Center we did a short walk but retreated due to the heat. We were very happy to have excellent views of a family of Cactus Wrens near a small pond, as well as several more Black-throated Sparrows. Also near the pond were several White-winged Doves along with the ubiquitous Mourning Doves. A young Coyote trotted through the cactus, and a few of us caught a glimpse of a Black-tailed Jackrabbit before it disappeared.

After a short stop to enjoy some ice cream we cruised around the Roadrunner Club Trailer Park in search of, you guess it, Greater Roadrunner. As luck would have it we saw about 20 bronze sculptures of roadrunners here but not the real deal. We did see some good birds nonetheless including both Black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds at feeders, as well as Lesser Goldfinch. On the golf course were several Black Phoebes and a single Say’s Phoebe, and we had nice looks at a Bewick’s Wren as it scolded us. Our second Coyote, this one much larger, was seen as it rested in the shade at the edge of the fairway. We drove through some very barren desert landscape between Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea and once we reached Brawley we slinked into the air conditioned paradise of the hotel for a break before dinner.

 

Aug 27 – Just before 7 AM we departed our hotel, made a quick stop to pick up lunch, then made our way towards the Salton Sea. On the way we paused along the road to view flocks of Cattle Egrets in the fields and skeins of White-faced Ibis flying across the sky. Our first Loggerhead Shrike was a welcome sighting, as were up to 20 charismatic Burrowing Owls that we tallied along Schrimpf and English roads.

Burrowing Owl at the Salton Sea, California. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Burrowing Owl at the Salton Sea, California. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Western Meadowlarks, Long-billed Curlews, Greater Yellowlegs and American Kestrel also were nice to see first thing this morning. Flooded fields had waders including Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers, Wilson’s Phalaropes and the like. Our first Black Tern sailed above the fields here, while we enjoyed scope views of White-faced Ibis. It was quite a relief to spot a Greater Roadrunner this morning, after having tried and missed for this species the previous day.

Up to 6 Greater Roadrunners were seen around the Salton Sea today. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Up to 6 Greater Roadrunners were seen around the Salton Sea today. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

Once we arrived at the Red Hill Marina I was once again surprised at just how much the Salton Sea has shrunk over the past decade. Where the water use to lap at your feet, the shore is now several hundred meters away. Through the scope we saw great numbers of birds including American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and terns and gulls including the specialty of the region, several Yellow-footed Gulls.

Dozens of Yellow-footed Gulls tallied today at the south end of the Salton Sea. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Dozens of Yellow-footed Gulls tallied today at the south end of the Salton Sea. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

We stopped near some trailers where a few bushes had some birds including Verdin, and a roosting Lesser Nighthawk! The next stop, Obsidian Butte, offered up much closer looks at the masses of birds. We scoped through the gulls finding several Laughing Gulls mixed in with the California, Ring-billed and Yellow-footeds. Waders were abundant with Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Marbled Godwits, Ruddy Turnstone, Western and Least sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers seen.

Along the sea wall at the end of Lack Road we were pleased to find over 20 Neotropic Cormorants, a species that has just recently extended its range into southern California.

Neotropic Cormorants at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Neotropic Cormorants at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

As we drove along the ‘sea-wall’ we birded from the comfort of the air conditioned van since temperatures soared to about 46 degrees celsius today. From the van we were able to get quite close to a large number of birds including Great and Snowy egrets, Great Blue Herons, Brown Pelicans, American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, Black Terns and much more.

American Avocets and a Marbled Godwit at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 25, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
American Avocets and Marbled Godwits at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Immature Black-crowned Night-Heron. Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Immature Black-crowned Night-Heron. Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Snowy Egret & Great Egret. Salton Sea, California. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
Snowy Egret & Great Egret. Salton Sea, California. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

We hid in the van, again taking advantage of the A/C at the Sonny Bono Visitor’s Center. As we munched on our sandwiches a covey of cute little Gambel’s Quail emerged from the shrubbery. In the center itself a very informative girl gave us a little lesson on the history of the Salton Sea. We then retreated back to Brawley, but not before pausing to view fields full of thousands of White-faced Ibis.

White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.
White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets at the Salton Sea, CA. Aug 27, 2015. Chris Charlesworth.

After a siesta we headed to Cattle Call Park, a nice little green space in the southern edge of town. It took a little effort but we eventually got to see our two main target species here; Abert’s Towhee and Gila Woodpecker. In the process we found two more birds new for our list; Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo, bringing our day list up to 84 species. This evening we had dinner at a local Mexican establishment and it was delicious!

Chris Charlesworth

 

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