Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Western Specialties Highlight Southern California Trip
October 01, 2011
By Steve Grinley
I had the pleasure of co-leading a Mass Audubon trip to southern California with David Larson this past week. We met our participants in Los Angeles, piled into two vans, and headed up the coast toward Ventura. Along the coast we saw numerous brown pelicans fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Black oystercatchers and western willets fed along the rocky shore. A stop at Point Mugu State Park revealed a family of California quail, spotted and California towhees, and a Nuttall’s woodpecker. An osprey perched over a dried creek bed, but there must have been water nearby for him to be hanging around.
The next day, we took the ferry to Santa Cruz Island and found the island scrub jay, which is endemic to that island, that is, that bird is only found on Santa Cruz. While we were on the island, we also found a bald eagle, acorn woodpeckers, northern flickers (red-shafted subspecies), ravens, black phoebes, Bewick’s wrens, Hutton’s vireo, orange-crowned warblers, and a lark sparrow. From the boat, we saw numerous sooty shearwaters, and had excellent views of parasitic and pomerine jaegers, the “hawks” of the ocean who try to steal fish from the elegant and royal terns that we observed.
After studying some shorebirds in Ventura, which included American and black oystercatchers, whimbrels, marbled godwits, black turnstones, surfbirds and wandering tattler, we headed southeast for the San Jacinto Mountains. There we found many mountain birds which included oak titmouse, mountain chickadee, and pygmy nuthatch. At Hurkey Creek County Park we observed dozens of hummingbirds feeding at five feeders that one camper had put out. Most of the birds were Anna’s hummingbirds, but we also saw one black-chinned and 2 Allen’s hummingbirds in the mix. The highlight for all had to be three white-headed woodpeckers, a striking bird, which was a life bird for me only six months earlier when I had to trudge through snow to find one. These three birds were flitting all over the campground, making it seem almost too easy!
With a 4:30 am start the next day, we headed for the Salton Sea, the largest body of water in California. Located in the desert, where temperatures reached 106 degrees, the Salton Sea is an oasis for many birds. We arrived at the southern end of the lake, Unit 1 as it is called, to flock after flock of white-faced ibis streaming in from everywhere to feed in the wet fields. There were easily tens of thousands of ibis, along with many snowy and great egrets, great blue herons, black-necked stilts, avocets, long-billed curlews and six sandhill cranes. We heard sora and clapper rails, as well as least bitterns and moorhens calling from the marshes. Countless shorebirds, including Wilson’s phalaropes, were in the nearby pools along with numerous cinnamon teal.
A drive around the Salton Sea yielded many burrowing owls standing along the dirt piles at the sides of the roads and a barn owl roosting in a palm tree in front of the headquarters building of the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge. We also found the rarest bird of the trip – the yellow footed gull – which leaves its breeding area in Mexico and visits the Salton Sea in late summer and fall. We saw about thirty of these gulls, looking much like our great black-backed gull (which doesn’t occur in California) but with yellowlegs and feet. This one was a life bird for me!
After seeing roadrunners and costa’s hummingbirds around our hotel at Borrego Springs, we headed out the next day through the Anza-Borrego desert, stopping at Yaqui Wells where we found black-tailed and California gnatcatchers, verdin, Gambell’s quail, and California thrasher. All of us were thrilled by the three golden eagles that soared overhead!
We drove through the Laguna Mountains, hoping for mountain quail, but no luck. We did add phainopepla, blue-gray gnatcatcher, MacGuillivray’s warbler and a Wilson’s warbler to our list. The latter is a common warbler here in the east, but rare in California.
We spent our last day birding around San Diego, seeing many of the same birds, but we had our first looks of the trip at a little blue heron, sanderlings, and dunlin. We enjoyed closer looks at Brandt’s, double crested and pelagic cormorants on the rocky cliffs of LaJolla. At Torrey Pines State Park we staked out a small water pool near the headquarters building where a previous Mass Audubon trip had seen wrentits four years ago. What were the chances? Most everyone else eventually wandered into the main building to view the displays while I kept vigil. Even I was amazed to see two small brown birds with very long tails come in to bathe in the shallow pool. Wrentits! I called the others out and the birds stayed long enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope.
We ended the trip with wonderful looks at black turnstones, a spotted sandpiper, and a wandering tattler on the rocks at Sunset Cliffs. It was time for us to wander back home ourselves.
This trip was a great way to see new areas and to see a lot of birds. For more information on birding trips with Mass Audubon, you can call the Joppa Flats Education Center at 978-462-9998, or log onto the Mass Audubon website at www.massaudubon.org
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