Southern California with Avocet Tours ~ Part 1

August 29 – Early this afternoon, at LAX,  I met up with my group, 6 ladies from various places in B.C. and Alberta, and we made the journey of about 1.5 hours to Santa Ana. As we followed the massive I-405 freeway south from L.A. and we saw nothing but common birds along the way; European Starling, American Crow, Mourning Dove and a group of unidentified parakeets zipping by. We headed out to do a little birding before the day was over, at the San Joaquin Sanctuary.

Cassin’s Kingbird. Santa Ana, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth

The birding was splendid, and in about an hour and a half we had amassed a list of close to 50 species. One of the first birds we noted was a male Northern Orange Bishop that was displaying in some long grass, as one or two comparatively drab females watched. Another ‘exotic’ species seen quite well was Scaly-breasted Munia. There were about a dozen of them playing hide and seek in the long grasses, but eventually we all had good looks at them. Several Cassin’s Kingbirds showed quite well, and we saw a couple of obliging Black Phoebes as well. Forster’s Terns plunge dived into the water, as did a single Brown Pelican. Nimali spotted a Black-crowned Night-Heron just in time before it disappeared into the vegetation along the edge of the pond. A Snowy Egret bravely landed only a few feet from us before it realized what it had done and flew

Black Skimmer. Santa Ana, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth

off. Pied-billed, Western and Clark’s grebes were tallied, as were Double-crested Cormorants, American White Pelicans and dozens of bizarre Black Skimmers. Waterfowl noted included Blue-winged, Cinnamon and Green-winged teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard and Ruddy Duck. A single Common Gallinule was a pleasant surprise as it strutted along the shore near several Killdeer, the only shorebird species we identified here this afternoon. In the brushy habitat along the edges of the ponds we found Song Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, a lovely male Allen’s Hummingbird, an Anna’s Hummingbird, House Finches, and a pair of very territorial California Towhees, the latter of which was a lifer for most. Up in the air we scanned through a number of Turkey

Red-shouldered Hawk. Santa Ana, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Vultures as they teetered back and forth on upward tilted wings. In among the vultures we were rewarded with sightings of Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk and an immature Red-shouldered Hawk, the latter of which lazily circled above us offering up excellent views. Feeling as though we had done very well at San Joaquin we made our way back to the hotel before venturing out for dinner.

August 30 – As we made our way to the coast this morning the skies were overcast due to the marine layer. This was welcome as it kept the temperatures cool for much of the morning. We began in the trendy neighborhood of Laguna Beach with a stop at Heisler Park. We scanned the offshore rocks for shorebirds and found a few Surfbirds and Black Turnstones,

Willet. Laguna Beach, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth

as well as Willets and a Whimbrel. Out on the rather calm ocean there were quite a number of Black-vented Shearwaters, mostly resting on the water. Heermann’s, Western and California gulls were noted as were a few Brown Pelicans and Brandt’s Cormorants. Our next stop was at Crescent Bay where again we scanned the ocean and the offshore rocks for birds. New for the list was a single Black Oystercatcher resting on the rocks below and a Common Loon flying by over the horizon. The rather attractive flowers here attracted both Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds. We saw an adult and 2 juvenile Northern Mockingbirds here, along with Orange-crowned Warbler, Song Sparrow and two lovely little male Scaly-breasted Munias, a species formerly known as the Nutmeg Mannikin. Over the past few

Scaly-breasted Munia. Laguna Beach, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

years the munia have become very well established in southern California. By now the marine layer was beginning to burn off and the temperatures were warming up a bit. We picked up lunch and took it with us to the Reef Point Unit of Crystal Cove State Park, where amongst the chaparral habitat we found several sought-after bird species. Upon arrival it seemed very quiet here, but with a bit of patience the birds showed themselves. At least two and possibly three California Gnatcatchers appeared out of nowhere and showed well as they foraged in the scrub in front of us. Next up we enjoyed excellent views of a pair of

California Gnatcatcher. Laguna Beach, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Wrentits, another target bird at this location. We headed to the van and ate our lunch, but we were interrupted by the appearance of a very bold California Thrasher that charged out of the chaparral and came straight for the van in search of scraps. This seemed like a bit of an easy ‘tick’ for us and it was a lifer for most people present. From Crystal Cove we made our way to Upper Newport Bay where I was a bit unhappy to find the road had been temporarily closed to vehicle traffic. Would this affect our plan to find the newly split Ridgeway’s Rail? Luck was on our side and we did find two rails in the reeds near the edge of the road. Fantastic! Shorebirds were plentiful on the mudflats here and we tallied Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Western and Least

California Thrasher. Crystal Cove Park, Laguna Beach, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

sandpipers, Black-bellied Plover and Killdeer. Wading birds included Great and Snowy egrets and Great Blue Herons. We were lucky to have good views of a juvenile ‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrow before we left as well. To finish off what had already been a spectacular day of birding we returned to San Joaquin Sanctuary for one last look. We took a peek in the little gift shop here and just as some were in the shop buying their souvenirs an immature Swainson’s Hawk sailed overhead. As we strolled down the path towards the ponds we again saw the stunning male Northern Orange Bishop doing his thing. An

American Avocets. San Joaquin Sanctuary, Irvine, CA. Aug 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

American Kestrel sailed by and perched on top of a tree. Pat was fortunate enough to spot a Greater Roadrunner briefly, and Nimali was also lucky to see a Say’s Phoebe. On one particular shallow pond we had some shorebirds including our first Semipalmated Plovers, several Long-billed Dowitchers and a number of winter plumage American Avocets. An immature Green Heron did a fly by, but unfortunately didn’t perched for better views. It was pretty hot and we were a little exhausted from a long day of birding so we headed back to our hotel and had a little rest before dinner.

August 31 – This morning we battled through the rush hour traffic as we made our way south from Orange County towards San Diego along the I-405. We then turned east and followed Hwy 78 inland towards Escondido where we picked up lunch and grabbed a coffee to go. The coastal marine layer melted away as we entered the mountains near Escondido and the temperatures got progressively warmer throughout the day. Our first birding stop was at the Inaja Memorial Park in Cleveland National Forest. Here we were treated to views of a noisy flock of California Scrub-Jays, a recent split from the Western Scrub-Jay. Also here we had great views of a male Nuttall’s Woodpecker and some people saw Acorn Woodpeckers as well. A little group of Lesser Goldfinches busily fed in the bushes here too.

We then entered the desert wonderland of Anza-Borrego, making our first stop at Tamarisk Grove Campground where we had lunch. After lunch we scurried from shady patch to shady patch and saw a few birds including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin and a Warbling Vireo. Desert vegetation was impressive here with Ocotillo, Barrel Cactus, Chollo Cactus, Prickly Pear and Creosote dominating the rocky landscape. We then made our way to the visitor’s center which was closed, but we did some birding in the area nonetheless.

Black-throated Sparrow. Chris Charlesworth.

A tiny little pond with a big palm tree next to it produced some good sightings including Black-throated Sparrow, Cactus Wren, Loggerhead Shrike, Costa’s Hummingbird and White-winged Dove! New for the mammal list here was a Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Before we left the Borrego Springs area we had an ice cream treat and then drove around the Roadrunner Club Resort where we hoped to find roadrunners. Roadrunner luck wasn’t on our side, but we saw other species anyhow; Say’s Phoebe, Black Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Lesser Goldfinch, Costa’s Hummingbird, Common Raven, Mallard, Cooper’s Hawk, Verdin, Yellow Warbler, and several Common Ground-Doves were tallied. The drive to Brawley took us through some very barren habitat, but once we were alongside the Salton Sea, we saw green irrigated fields full of White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets. We checked in to our hotel and later went for a delicious dinner. As we headed for dinner we saw a couple of Lesser Nighthawks sailing overhead. As it turned out we birdwatchers had arrived in Brawley on the opening day of dove hunting season so the town was full of activity, with middle aged men in camouflage all over the place.

September 1 – We left our hotel early this morning and made our way towards the southeast corner of the Salton Sea. Along the way we paused to look at fields teeming with thousands of White-faced Ibis and Cattle Egrets! As we made our way towards the sea we began counting Burrowing Owls and by the end of the day we had tallied 28 of the little

Burrowing Owl. Salton Sea, California. Sep 1, 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

beauties. They were present in little family groups and in singles all along the dyke alongside the road. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds along with a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds were tallied in the fields, and a Western Meadowlark was singing in the distance. At a wetland area near the east shore of the sea we were happy to see an American Bittern flying past, as well as Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great and Snowy egrets and Great Blue Herons. There were Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater Yellowlegs, Least and Western sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets here as well. A Ridgway’s Rail of the ‘Yuma’ race was nice to add here, as was only our second sighting of a Common Gallinule. As we retraced our route we added another iconic bird of the desert, a Greater Roadrunner, as it quickly trotted across an open field towards the cover of the bushes.

Our next stop was at the Red Hill Marina, where because of receding water line we never actually did make it to the shore of the sea. All was not lost however, because we found a

Lesser Nighthawk. Red Hill Marina. Salton Sea, California. Sep 1, 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

roosting Lesser Nighthawk here in a mesquite tree. In the same tree were a few other migrants including Western Tanager, Yellow Warbler and a resident Verdin. We found a local rarity here as well in the form of an Eastern Kingbird. Our record appears to be one of just a few for the Salton Sea area. It was hanging out on the telephone wires next to a Western Kingbird for comparison. We checked a large wetland area near Red Hill Marina and here we added several birds to the day list including Ruddy Duck, both Western and Clark’s grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, Cinnamon Teal and Eared Grebe. Heard but not seen were Ridgway’s Rail,

Eastern Kingbird. Red Hill Marina, Salton Sea, California. Sep 1, 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Sora and Marsh Wren. Our next stop was at Obsidian Butte, where we finally reached the edge of the Salton Sea. Shorebirds were numerous here and we saw Willet, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Avocet, Red-necked Phalarope, Least and Western sandpipers and Killdeer. In addition to the shorebirds were flocks of American White and Brown pelicans, the usual herons and egrets and an assortment of gulls which included common species like Ring-billed and California, as well as the sought-after Yellow-footed Gull. We must have seen 15-20 Yellow-footed Gulls today of various ages.

Yellow-footed Gull. Obsidian Butte. Salton Sea, California. Sep 1, 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Also nice to see here were Laughing Gulls since this is the only location at which this species is regularly seen in California. We scanned through groups of Double-crested Cormorants and were eventually rewarded with the sighting of a single Neotropic Cormorant among them. Feeling as though we had done quite well at the sea we made our way to the Refuge Headquarters where a sprinkler had been left on creating a nice drip for the birds. This drip attracted quite a selection including Yellow, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned and Nashville warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Western Tanagers, Bullock’s Orioles, House Sparrow, Verdin, Lazuli Bunting, Abert’s Towhee and a single Green-tailed Towhee, the latter of which is not expected here. Numbers of Common

Greater Roadrunner. Salton Sea, CA. Sep 1, 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Ground-Doves foraged on the grass here, and a Greater Roadrunner also made a surprise appearance! By now the temperatures had reached over 40 degrees Celsius so we made our way back to Brawley where we grabbed some lunch and then enjoyed a little siesta.

At 4:30 PM we gathered once again and made our way to Cattle Call Park in Brawley. Here, we spent over an hour doing some leisurely birding during which time we found several interesting species such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, MacGillivray’s Warbler and our real target for this location, Gila Woodpeckers. We had at least three Gilas here, including a male. At the end of the day we had seen over 80 species of birds.

Chris Charlesworth, Avocet Tours


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