August 28 – This morning we left the inferno that is the Imperial Valley behind, but not before one more stop along the east side of the Salton Sea to have one last look at the comical Burrowing Owls. On the wires were dozens of Tree Swallows, a few Barn Swallows and a single Cliff Swallow. A quick look at the shore near the north end of the sea added a few day birds to our list; American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, American Avocet and a few others.
The objective for the rest of the day was to see as many forest species as we could in the San Jacinto Mountains. We made a short stop at a viewpoint to look down on the affluent cities of Indian Wells and Palm Desert. It seems odd to see lush golf courses and ponds in the middle of the bone dry desert, but there you are. Black-throated Sparrow and a single Costa’s Hummingbird were noted from the viewpoint. Our next stop was at Ramona Trail and the birding was exceptional here! An old rusted out water tank which was filled up with water was the main attraction here and we watched as a number of excellent birds came in to drink. Star attractions included a boisterous flock of Pinyon Jays and a single female White-headed Woodpecker. There were up to a dozen Pygmy Nuthatches in the pines and attending the water tank, along with one or two White-breasted Nuthatches. Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, Lesser Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow and several Western Bluebirds were also in attendance. Our next stop was at Hurkey Creek Park where we had a picnic lunch while Steller’s Jays eyed up our table for crumbs. A walk through the pine trees here produced our first Spotted Towhees of the tour, along with a single Wilson’s Warbler. Woodpeckers were numerous and we saw another White-headed Woodpecker here, along with the usual Acorn Woodpeckers, a Hairy Woodpecker and a rather obliging Nuttall’s Woodpecker.
In addition to the birds, we had two new butterflies here, Pale Swallowtail and Western Tiger Swallowtail. We had brief views of Western Gray Squirrel with its extravagantly long tail. One final stop, at Idylwild, produced a male Dark-eyed Junco of the ‘Oregon‘ race, as well as a number of other birds. The drive to Twentynine Palms took us down a winding road with excellent views of the San Bernardino Valley. We arrived at our hotel at around 5:30 PM and went for an excellent dinner at the Rib Co.
Aug 29 – This morning we visited the Mara Oasis Visitors Center at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park first thing. The walk around the original grove of palms was quite nice, though birds were not especially numerous. Of note was an immature Cooper’s Hawk, a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and a Barn Owl that was disturbed accidentally from its roost in a palm tree. A small group of Gambel’s Quail paraded through the brush here as well. New for the butterfly list was California Patch.
visiting the center we entered Joshua Tree National Park and enjoyed the fantastic scenery with unusual rockscapes and the namesake Joshua Trees. Some of the birds we noted included several Loggerhead Shrikes, Cactus Wrens, Verdin, and Black-throated Sparrow. Harris’s Antelope Squirrel was new for the mammal list and we saw two different Chuckwallas, the largest lizard in this region.
We walked to Barker Dam, which had a fair bit of water in it this year, attracting some interesting wildlife. A herd of up to 16 Desert Bighorn Sheep were resting on a ledge above the dam, and included several ewes, rams and youngsters. At the dam we watched as a group of White-throated Swifts came down to skim water from the surface of the pond. In the willows at the pond’s edge were a few migrants including Western Wood-Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned and Yellow warblers, Warbling Vireos, and an immature Lark Sparrow. On the rocky cliffs we enjoyed great views of the two local wren species, Canyon Wren and Rock Wren. Vegetation was also quite interesting here with Teddy Bear Cholla, Prickly Pear Cactus, Beavertail Cactus, Barrel Cactus, Pinyon Pines and Desert Globemallow identified.
After picking up lunch in Joshua Tree we made our way to Covington Park in Morongo Valley where we had a picnic. Just as well pulled into the parking spot, I located a male Vermilion Flycatcher sitting atop the netting on a volleyball court! Pam spotted another excellent bird here, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and we all got scope views of this rather elusive, large and bizarre warbler. There were Western Tanagers, Hooded Oriole, and a few other birds around here as well which kept us occupied for a while. A walk at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve was topped off with the sighting of a brilliant male Summer Tanager. Also here, we had good views of a Bell’s Vireo as it sang from its willowy habitat. A little flock of Bushtits, with a couple of Verdin mixed in, moved through the deciduous habitat, while a rather tame Western Scrub-Jay paused for us to take a good look. Hummingbird feeders near the parking lot had bustling activity with Black-chinned, Anna’s, and Costa’s hummingbirds feeding. Time was ticking so by about 3:30 PM we had to leave the park and begin our journey to Mojave which took until just after 6 PM.
Aug 30 – For a change it was almost cool this morning when we emerged from our hotel in Mojave. We made our way east to Jawbone Canyon, where among the creosote bushes and sagebrush we searched for quite some time for Le Conte’s Thrashers with no luck. In a last ditch attempt I tried again for them near a large pipe, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and low and behold we found two, first spotted by Brian. The Le Conte’s, a pale thrasher, loves to run along the ground from bush to bush with its long tail held up in the air, and this is just what our two birds did, periodically sitting up on a bush to sing. We also had very nice views of the ‘canescens‘ race of Bell’s Sparrow here, a species just recently split from Sage Sparrow. A yard with a nice grove of large trees was our next focal point and here we had several more excellent birds, the best of which was a roosting Great Horned Owl. Two Olive-sided Flycatchers sat on exposed perches for us to admire them , and a rather out of place Red-breasted Nuthatch was a nice surprise as well. An immature Cooper’s Hawk came tearing into the yard and chose to perch very close to the Great Horned Owl before thinking better and flying off.
We picked up lunch in California City and made our way to the SIlver Saddle Resort where green grassy lawns with ponds and fountains attracts birds in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Yellow, Wilson’s and Orange-crowned warblers, Willow, Pacific-slope and Olive-sided flycatchers, Say’s and Black phoebes, and an immature male Vermilion Flycatcher were all highlights. A distant Lazuli Bunting was seen by some through the scope, but we all saw a female Belted Kingfisher as she searched for the perfect perch from which to watch the pond below for fish. An immature Great Blue Heron also searched for food here.
One last stop today at Central Park in California City provided a few day birds such as Yellow-headed Blackbird, Pied-billed Grebe and a single Cliff Swallow. We stopped for ice cream, then made our way back to our hotel for a little siesta before heading out for dinner.
Aug 31 – Leaving Mojave behind, we made our way south towards the San Gabriel Mountains this morning, stopping briefly at Apollo County Park in Lancaster to search for some geese. We found a flock of mixed geese, many of which were of questionable origin. Among them were two Ross’s Geese, a Snow Goose and a Greater White-fronted Goose.
We climbed up the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains and arrived at our first birding spot at Chilao by 9 AM. Birding was very good here and we had excellent looks at Band-tailed Pigeons, Acorn and White-headed woodpeckers, Steller’s Jay and several other species, but the best of all were 4 Mountain Quail that strutted across the parking lot! This was the first time I had actually laid binoculars on this species, previously having seen them only crossing the road while I was driving at speed.
At the Cloudburst Summit, which sits at just over 7000 feet, we enjoyed good numbers of Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, woodpeckers, Brown Creeper and a fleeting glimpse of Clark’s Nutcracker. I tried my pygmy owl imitation several times but couldn’t attract the desired owl species. The call, however did attract nuthatches, chickadees and other birds at every stop. A walk at the Buckhorn Flats Campground was quite pleasant and here we had views of Gray Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s), Townsend’s and Wilson’s warblers, Western Wood-Pewee and more.
We had lunch at Newcomb’s Ranch while Steller’s Jays and Dark-eyed Juncos patrolled around the tables for scraps. After lunch we tried yet again for pygmy owl, returning to the Cloudburst Summit area. We had success at our first stop and a Northern Pygmy Owl came right in and showed off for 20 minutes or more while chickadees, nuthatches and even hummingbirds mobbed it. Feeling satisfied we began our drive towards the coast at Camarillo where we spent the next three nights.
September 1 – At 7 AM we left our hotel, picked up our lunch and made our way to the pier in Ventura where we boarded a boat bound for Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park. Before we hopped on the boat we had time to check the beach near the pier where Sanderling, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Black Turnstone, Surfbird and Black Oystercatcher were seen. Allison picked out a nice juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper on the beach, our only one for the tour.
Once on the boat we crossed the Santa Barbara Channel under ideal conditions. Birds were fairly numerous and we saw loads of Black-vented Shearwaters, a few Pink-footed Shearwaters and a single Sooty Shearwater. There were Red-necked Phalaropes, Pomarine Jaegers, and a single Cassin’s Auklet as well. We came upon a large pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins that were fantastic to watch as they chased alongside the boat.
On Santa Cruz Island we docked at Prisoner’s Harbor and spent several hours exploring this rich and diverse area. It took us a while, but eventually we found a few of the endemic Island Scrub-Jays that took us to the island in the first place.
Passerines on the island were rather scarce, though we did have our first views of Hutton’s Vireo as well as views of the local island race of Song Sparrow. A few Orange-crowned Warblers, Black Phoebes, Acorn Woodpeckers, and a Willow Flycatcher were also noted. A Great Blue Heron rested in a tall dead tree along the shore, while on the pier a group of Western and California gulls offered nice comparisons. A tiny Island Fox appeared right on cue at lunch time and snooped around the picnic tables looking for scraps having limited luck. In the butterfly department, several California Sisters were noted on the island today. The ride back to Ventura was pretty quick and we saw some distant Humpback Whales which was a real treat.
September 2 – After breakfast we traveled to the lovely ocean side city of Santa Barbara. A flock of over a hundred Black Skimmers sat on a sandy beach, along with several Royal Terns, a nice start to the morning’s birding. We boarded the Condor Express for several hours today as we cruised around in Santa Barbara Channel looking for cetaceans and birds. We had excellent luck with the cetaceans as good numbers of Humpback Whales were seen at close range, along with up to three of the largest animals to ever inhabit the earth, Blue Whales! In addition to these giant creatures we had large pods of Long-beaked Common Dolphins and many California Sea-Lions. Harbour Seals were also noted today.
In patches there were a lot birds about as well, with hundreds of Black-vented Shearwaters seen well, along with a few Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters. Two Northern Fulmars were our only for the trip and we saw several Pomarine Skuas as well. A few small groups of Red-necked Phalaropes flushed as the boat neared, and we watched a Cassin’s Auklet whiz past. Gulls included California, Western and the usual Heermann’s gulls.
Once back on the mainland we made our way to Devereux Slough, a fresh water lagoon, often good for waders. Here, we had Killdeer along with its smaller cousin, the Semipalmated Plover. There were both Western and Least sandpipers side by side once again for good comparison. Downy Woodpecker, as well as Nuttall’s Woodpecker showed nicely in the introduced eucalyptus trees around the slough. Black Phoebe and Say’s Phoebe foraged along the edge of the ponds, while Wrentit, Bushtit, California Towhee and Orange-crowned Warbler were also ticked for the day list.
September 3 – Our final morning in California began with sunny skies as we made our way north to Alisal Canyon in the oak / grassland habitat where Yellow-billed Magpies were our target. Along the way, just as I pointed out where a Bobcat had been seen the previous year, another (or perhaps the same) Bobcat emerged and walked across the field into the grass. Wow! What luck.
Once we arrived at an area of ranch land it didn’t take us long to find several Yellow-billed Magpies going about their business. Other birds of note included Hutton’s Vireo, Red-shouldered Hawk, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Western Scrub-Jay and a large covey of California Quail! Penny looked down and exclaimed ‘What’s that?’ and ‘that’ turned out to be a Desert Tarantula!
With the proverbial magpie in the bag we headed back south along the coast, popping in at El Capitan State Beach for a little birding before lunch. Things were quite active here, with a nice California Thrasher chattering away in a large fir tree next to the parking lot. In the bushes Warbling Vireos, Wrentits and Western Tanager flitted about, and out on the open ocean a few Pacific Divers (Loons) were scoped.
After lunch, as we drove through Goleta we popped in once again at Devereux Slough for a quick look. Today we found a roost of about 6 Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Pam spotted an immature Green Heron lurking at the edge of a nearby pool. A Belted Kingfisher sat on the same branch we saw it on a previous day. We encountered heavy traffic on the journey back to Los Angeles but arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I bid the group farewell and thoroughly enjoyed their company and birding skills throughout the tour.