HMANA SoCal Winter Tour 2017

14 03 2017
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California Condor – Luke Tiller

Co-leading with fellow HMANA board member Tom Reed, I had the privilege of sharing  some of the incredible scenery and birds that make Southern California such a special place. It was a real pleasure to share my home turf with a great group of HMANA members. Here is the tour report:

Day one: 

We started our day down near LAX airport, so a logical first stop was therefore to explore a marina just a stones throw from the runways. Here we ran into local birding expert and author Kimball Garrett and eventually, with some work, a few of the rocky shoreline species we had hoped to run into here including Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher. We also enjoyed seeing a few gulls and terns including west coast specialties Glaucous-winged Gull and Western Gull as well as a couple of stunning Heerman’s Gulls! We also picked up our first raptor of the trip in the form of a Peregrine Falcon that was harassing the local beach pigeons.

After a quick lunch, we headed towards Eaton Canyon in Pasadena, but traffic and parking was bordering on the insane. It was great to see so many people out enjoying the outdoors on a beautiful holiday day but it wasn’t particularly conducive to our birding endeavors. That said we picked off a few birds between the melee of hikers including local specialties like the incredibly clownlike Acorn Woodpecker, the highly localized Nuttall’s Woodpecker and the recently split California Scrub Jay.  From there we checked a quieter little local park where we picked off Cassin’s Kingbird, California Towhees and a couple of California Thrashers.

We ended our day at what must be one of the most incredible birding spectacles in Southern California – the parrot roosts in Pasadena. Here hundreds, if not thousands of raucous Amazon parrots come to roost in winter. Scattered among trees and powerlines they descend on neighborhoods at dusk in order to roost communally. It’s quite the sight and even more so quite the sound. Among the throngs of mainly Red-crowned Parrots we picked out numerous Lilac-crowned Parrots and a handful of Yellow-headed Parrots. We ended our day out on the patio of an awesome pizza restaurant reflecting on a fun and productive first day.

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California Thrasher – Luke Tiller

Day two:

After spending the night in Palmdale CA, we started our day with an early morning run to Alpine Butte Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we enjoyed surveying the Antelope Valley, Mojave, Southern Sierras and San Gabriel Mountains stretched out all around us! We also enjoyed seeing our first Joshua Trees of the trip too.

Our first raptor encounters of the day included a distant Prairie Falcon and a “rufous-morph” Red-tailed Hawk. Searching a mix of agricultural fields and a desert oasis provided by a local golf course meant we were soon picking up some nice localized species including Nuttall’s Woodpecker and California Quail. Some roosting Turkey Vultures picked up from their golf course roost with intent leading us to head onwards in search of more raptor activity. We were not to be disappointed as our next stop provided us with a wealth of stunning raptors. Ferruginous Hawks are perhaps the most sought after buteo in North America, thanks both to its incredible beauty and relative rarity. These regal raptors are rarely commonly found except it seems in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Over the day we tallied double digit numbers of this spectacular raptor, enjoying both age classes and color morphs. Also putting on a show were a variety of Red-tailed Hawks including at least one stunning rufous-morph bird. We also managed to get decent looks at a staked out Great Horned Owl that was sharing its hunting grounds with these stunning diurnal raptors.

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Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

After a great lunch at a nearby taqueria we headed over to Apollo Park, where among the domestic ducks we found Ross’s Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose and Snow Goose. As well as the geese, we also added two more merganser species to our trip list, Hooded Merganser and Common Merganser, regardless of their name they are both somewhat uncommon in the region.

We ended our day on the eastern edge of Lancaster with a fly-in of 300 plus Snow Geese. In the surrounding desert scrub and agricultural fields, we added specialties like Tricolored Blackbird, Bell’s Sparrow and at least one more Ferruginous Hawk to our day’s tally!

Day three:

Most our third day was taken up with a visit to Bitter Creek NWR. The site is not open to the public and we were privileged to be allowed behind the scenes access to this incredible site. With the condors not being the earliest of risers we even were afforded a sleep in before we headed out to meet lead Condor biologist Joseph Brandt and his team.

After spending at least half an hour with Joseph answering all our questions concerning condors we headed off into the reserve in search of these incredible birds. We first spotted a distantly perched bird sat on the outside of a flight pen, but I think the memory that will be burned into everyone’s memory for the rest of their lives is when we came around a corner and there below us were a kettling group of eight California Condors – simply incredible! For the next thirty minutes we experienced the kind of condor encounter only a few ever get to experience. As the condors rose from the ravine below us, we obviously peeked their curiosity and they circled around us checking us out for a while. Joseph filled us in on more details of the project and answered a slew of further questions. We also got to see some of the tracking devices used on the birds in hand and got to touch a mind-bogglingly impressive primary feather from a California Condor. I think quite a few photos were taken as well! That experience must rate up there with any birding experience I have enjoyed.

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California Condor – Luke Tiller

Though the condors were the main prize, they were not our only raptor prize on Bitter Creek. On the way in we had added our first “elegans” Red-shouldered Hawk of the trip and while touring the refuge we had picked up multiple flavors of Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin and more impressively a rare Rough-legged Hawk. Rough-legged Hawk must rate as many hawkwatchers favorite buteo and these tundra raptors are not common in Southern California, so this was a real added bonus.  We even picked up a couple more Ferruginous Hawks for the tour including a beautiful dark morph bird which soared over us while we ate our packed lunch at some picnic tables near the condor technicians bunk house.

Leaving the reserve, we again ran into a light morph Rough-legged Hawk but this was outdone by our next raptor encounter, a stunning adult Golden Eagle. The eagle was sat in a roadside meadow and when we stopped to view it rather than fly away from us she decided to head straight past our vehicle. As she flew off the edge of the canyon behind us she came into the airspace of a couple of soaring California Condors with which she briefly tangled before they both called truce and flew to their own roosting spots. These birds then allowed us prolonged scoped views. Simply magical!

A couple of stops on the way home provided us with great birds like Wrentit, Phainopepla and Mountain Bluebird and distant views of both White-tailed Kite and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Day four:

Next stop on our action-packed tour was a visit to Tejon Ranch where Senior Ecologist Ellery Mayence and volunteers Steve and Chris treated us to an incredible tour of this magical location. Here among a range of diverse habitats, from oak chaparral to Joshua Tree forests we were witness to just some of what this incredibly large and diverse property has to offer. Our first quick stop was at a lake that offered up a wealth of waterfowl including a nice sized flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, a couple of Snow Geese and at least one Cackling Goose among the Canada Geese. There was also at least one Redhead and a couple of Eared Grebe to enjoy.

Among the flocks of sparrows on the property we found Lark Sparrows in abundance, Dark-eyed Juncos and picked through the zonotrichias to discover Golden-crowned Sparrows among the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrow flocks.

There were plenty of raptor highlights to enjoy too including a juvenile Bald Eagle, at least five Golden Eagles and two different subspecies of Merlin: “taiga” and “prairie”.  All the while our erstwhile guides plied us with fascinating information about the area, the ranch and its rich history. Even our plein air lunch stop was interrupted by magnificent birds as both Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles played in the air around us.

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Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Perhaps best of all, our day had been threatened by the promise of rain and yet we managed to get through almost the whole day with just a sprinkle or two. In fact the only real bad weather on the day almost just added to the atmosphere, when it started sleeting as we watched three Golden Eagles soar over the hills ahead of our convoy.

One of our last stops on site was one of the most memorable in terms of non-raptors as we enjoyed hundreds of Mountain Bluebirds fliting through a Joshua Tree forest like a wave of azure blue. We also picked out some cryptic but equally beautiful Sage Thrashers among them. Another memorable day in another magical place.

Day five:

At least in the last few years the concept of winter has been hard to come by in Southern California. However the winter of 2016/17 was something different, with rainfall way above average.  Day five of our tour had threatened to be a complete washout. Though plans to get to the mountains had to be scrapped we did at least have the time to seek out and find a few Mountain Plovers – a nice prize scooped between showers.

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Mountain Plover – Luke Tiller

As we headed into the LA basin though the weather caught up with us and my co-leader Tom and I drove through what can only be described as a deluge. It was accompanied by howling winds which made driving interesting to say the very least, especially through some of the mountain passes.

We were not to be completely denied birding time on the day however as a brief intermission in the rain and a quick U-turn allowed us a damp but productive stop in Sylmar to track down a couple of North America’s most glamorous woodpeckers: Williamson’s Sapsucker and Red-breasted Sapsucker! As we wended our way over for our night in Chino we managed to sneak in a couple more stops, that although not particularly birdy, at least offered the chance to stretch our legs and witness the sun finally peeking out from behind the rainclouds.

Day six:

Our last day together. We started off with an early morning start to add another raptor to our trip list: Burrowing Owl. Out in a bare field near at a community college in Chino we picked out a couple of these little cuties standing around their burrows. A great start to our activities.

Next stop was at Bonelli Regional Park, here we finally get some great views of the California subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk. There was much else to enjoy here, including owl species number two for the day: Barn Owl. The stop here was a productive one overall with Clark’s Grebe, Hutton’s Vireo, and Costa’s Hummingbird among the mix of interesting and exciting new birds. The varied habitats at Bonelli make it a perennial favorite with birders, but our main target here was California Gnatcatcher. Though it took a little work we eventually tracked a couple down and were rewarded with stellar views and ample photographic opportunities of this bird.

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California Gnatcatcher – Luke Tiller

Next stop was another favorite site for birdwatchers: Bolsa Chica. This mixed habitat coastal marsh provides a great spot to pick up a slew of interesting birds that utilize such environment including the Belding’s subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet and “Western Willet”. To pick just a few. It’s always a neat place to photograph, with birds brought closer to you by the bridge that takes you from the parking lot to the first brackish pond.

Other highlights here included a Reddish Egret which is hard to find anywhere else in the area, Red Knot (ditto) and possibly of most interest of all a rare Glaucous Gull that was loafing with a group of some of the more regular gull species. Looking at eBird reports we were probably the last birders to see that gull in Orange County as we watched it take off and disappear over the ponds, seemingly never to be seen again!

Our next stop was a brief one at the mouth of the San Gabriel, where among other commonly occurring species we picked out a neat looking little Mew Gull, itself somewhat uncommon here. By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and our time in Southern California together drawing to a close. We had just enough minutes of daylight to make one final stop. Here in an urban park in Los Angeles we picked out a few final species for the tour including our first Black-necked Stilts and a jaunty little female Vermilion Flycatcher. Our last bird of the trip perhaps one to keep in the back pocket for an armchair tick in the form of a couple of neat looking Egyptian Geese.

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“Western” Willet – Luke Tiller

In the end we had tallied an impressive 165 species of birds (HMANA SoCal Checklist 2017) in what, with the rain, amounted to little more than five days of active birding. We had tallied 17 species of diurnal raptors (20 including the owls). Memories of the incredible California Condor spectacle and the visit to Tejon Ranch will live long in the memory, as will the incredible number of Ferruginous Hawks and the bonus Rough-legged Hawk seen on the trip. A wonderful week in Southern California tasting some of the incredible birds and scenery this great state has to offer.

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