Spring in SoCal Tour

4 05 2018
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Ridgway’s Rail – Luke Tiller

Day 1

Spring in SoCal Tour. This tour took in more than just LA County has to offer, though all within a very manageable 200-mile radius of downtown Los Angeles , with the majority less than half that distance away.

We started our tour with pickups at airport hotels before winging our way over to Huntington Park, an urban part of the LA Basin where Spotted Doves hold on to perhaps their final mainland California bridgehead. We soon had the pretty pink dove lined up in my scope and in the surrounding neighborhood we managed to pick up a couple of colorful, if less countable, parrot species including Ring-necked, Yellow-chevroned and White-winged Parakeets.

Next stop involved a little hike through some native habitat, where stands of cactus hosted both Cactus Wrens and the more highly prized California Gnatcatchers. The jaunty little gnatcatcher certainly put on a nice show for the group. In addition to the target gnatcatchers, we also eked out a couple of nice supplementary, and not always easy to nail down, species: Scaly-breasted Munia and Hutton’s Vireo

Our next stop was a typically California coastal one replete with palm trees, where along with the beautiful sand beaches and the salt spray of the majestic Pacific Ocean we also enjoyed a couple of “rockpipers” in the shape of Black Turnstone and Surfbird.

Our next stop was Bolsa Chica, a real southern California birding jewel. Immediately we discovered a wealth of terns including name-definingly Elegant Terns and cute little Least Terns. Our main quarry here though was the relatively recently split Ridgway’s Rail. Sometimes seemingly easy, sometimes impossible but rarely anywhere in between we eventually had amazing point blank looks at this impressive and attractive west coast cousin of the Clapper Rail.

We rounded out our day with a quick stop at Huntington Beach Central Park for some fun introduced species, Orange-cheeked Waxbills, and some pretty migrants including Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers.

A great first day was rounded out with a fun stop at one of Southern California’s premier breweries: Pizza Port in Oceanside.

 

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Brewer’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Day 2

We started our day bright and early as we swung south towards the Mexican border. Here along some rocky mountain roads we sought out a variety of specialists including striking Black-throated Sparrows and most importantly one participant’s bogie bird Gray Vireo. A quick roadside pause soon had us a singing Gray Vireo, which allowed us to work good views of a pair, while sparrow song rang out from the surrounding hillsides. There were also many migrants to be found dotted through suitable habitat including both Hooded and Bullock’s Orioles, stealing the show however was surely the breathtaking views of a male Scott’s Oriole. The only disappointment was that a couple of vocalizing Mountain Quail refused to be seen and were seemingly eventually spooked by some passing hikers: c’est la vie.

It would seem improper to just drive past a town called Jacumba Hot Springs without exploring properly and it wasn’t long before we were thankful that we had. As well as a few expected “desert” species like Brewer’s Sparrows, Costa’s Hummingbirds and White-winged Doves there was one west coast specialty making good use of the marshy wetlands found outside of town: Tricolored Blackbirds. As well as the blackbirds the wetlands and town were awash with migrants and we enjoyed a fun relaxed lunch break on a resort patio picking off Black-throated Gray Warbler, Warbling and Cassin’s Vireo and more in the surrounding trees while we ate.

After checking in at our hotel and sitting out a little of the midday sun we headed off for the south end of the Salton Sea to look for birds. First up after leaving our hotel we were granted great looks at a bunch of delightful Burrowing Owls along the agricultural fields south of the sea. The Salton Sea is a habitat that is sadly deteriorating rapidly. Though spring is not prime time for Yellow-footed Gulls there are often a handful that have hung in through the winter. This year there have been exactly zero reports since late fall. Whether this is an anomaly or whether this is the future of the Salton Sea is hard to say.

Though birds were somewhat few and far between generally it wasn’t all bad and we had a decent mix of shorebirds and waders if not numbers of any. Highlight though had to be the Gull-billed Terns that were coursing gracefully over fields and canals looking for insect prey and the stunning rosy-bellied Franklin’s Gulls loafing on the salty shoreline. In somewhat good news the smell was seemingly less intense than the last time I’d been at the sea too.

We ended our day at Cattle Call Park where several species make their most westerly appearance in the state of California. Here we worked looks at Abert’s Towhee, Gambel’s Quail and finally Gila Woodpecker. A good end to a long day

We ended our evening listening to The Smiths in a small bar in Westmorland, CA. Not a place I could have ever imagined listening to The Smiths to in my wildest teenage dreams.

 

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Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Day 3

Our day started bright and early in Borrego Springs. Here the blessings of water can bring unlikely bird sightings. Equally, what birding tour worth its salt doesn’t visit a wastewater treatment plant? That’s where we found ourselves early Monday morning. Though thrashers were conspicuous by their absence we added a few nice desert specialties including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Sparrow and Verdin.

Next stop was a little neighborhood golf course where we picked up a cute little Common Ground-Dove and a Sora that was bizarrely walking around on a lawn completely oblivious to our presence. Before leaving town, we made a quick stop at a renowned migrant trap where we dug up a Rufous Hummingbird and two dark lored White-crowned Sparrows presumably of the Rocky Mountain race Oriantha.

A quick break at the northwest corner of the Salton Sea was no more productive for gulls than the south end had been. It’s hard to find a bird that just isn’t there! We then got a taste of SoCal traffic when we ran into the tail end of clear out of the Coachella Music Festival. A two-hour drive to Pasadena rapidly became about a three-hour one, ugh! Still we cheered ourselves up on route with a quick stop for some lunch and most importantly a delicious date shake.

After an hour or two down time we met for our evening owl extravaganza. Driving up to the San Gabriel’s with our packed lunch we hiked off into the sunset to look and listen for crepuscular birds. As we were hiking to our owl spot I began to hear nearby Mountain Quail and was astounded to suddenly see one dash across the trail behind us, a sighting which sadly eluded all the participants. No worries though, as we sat and watched the area where the bird had crossed the trail I suddenly spotted a second bird creep out into the open and start calling. Over the next couple of minutes, we all had incredible views of this most elusive of southern Californian birds in the gathering gloom. Sadly, no time or much light for photos. As the sun set so nocturnal owls started to sound off, first a Western Screech-Owl winnowing away from a nearby tree, then the boisterous call of a nearby Common Poorwill, a Great Horned also called out too, all while we ate our packed dinner and celebratory bottle of wine. The wine tasted all the sweeter when we finally managed to pick out a Spotted Owl calling from the ridgeline above us. A wonderful moonlit hike with incredible nocturnal birds and a couple of Mountain Quail all thrown in for good measure. Magical!

 

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Lewis’s Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Day 4

With Mountain Quail under our belt and action in the mountains often slow to start, we enjoyed a late start to the morning’s activities. Kicking off at Charlton Flats Campground we actually had to work a little harder than usual to get good looks at our main quarry: Hermit Warbler. Though we lack numbers of warblers in the west I think we make up for that with their relative attractiveness and Hermit must be one of the prettiest.

Next stop turned out to be another memorable one when I quickly located one of the groups most hoped for species: Lewis’s Woodpecker. There had been a surprising influx of this species over winter and I was happy to see that at least a dozen birds had lingered into the spring season. Most incredible though had to be when another of our high-profile targets, White-headed Woodpecker, flew in and bumped one of these beautiful Lewis’s off of its perch!!! Two of North America’s most desirable woodpeckers interacting in the same binocular view! We even spotted another Mountain Quail at the same spot as it briefly popped up on the edge of a forest clearing!

After a little hot-high-noon down time at our hotel we headed out to explore the Antelope Valley in early evening. A windy hike around a local park yielded single lingering Ross’s, Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese as well as a couple of migrants: Gray and Ash-throated Flycatcher.  Some exploration of desert scrub netted us desirable residents in the shape of Bell’s Sparrow and even more excitingly a LeConte’s Thrasher spotted as a teed up driveby!!! Another nemesis bird down, and a great end to a fun day birding.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Day 5

When in Rome…. We started our day with a right of passage for Southern California Birders, a stop at one of the area’s top desert migrant traps Galileo Hill. Here out in the Mojave Desert exists a weird and wonderful spot that is generously opened to birders. On arrival we were inundated with a good number of arriving migrants including many Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers and Western Wood-Pewees, however numbers tailed off a little as we explored further. That said there was still lots to enjoy including two Yellow-breasted Chats (including one that was very obliging), a female Calliope Hummingbird and a couple of Cassin’s Finches. The one real rarity we had, in the shape of a Hooded warbler, was disappointingly less cooperative.

Next stop was California City, the ghost town that refuses to die. Here migrants were tough to come by but at least the Yellow-headed Blackbirds were putting on their usual show. One vireo eluded definitive identification but looked too pale and concolorous for the more expected Cassin’s.

Though the day was warming up, we still had Lawrence’s Goldfinch on our target list and I decided that a midday drive out to Butterbredt Springs might be in order. Though remote and generally birdier at dawn, I thought the combination of interesting landscape, blooming desert flowers and a little natural water hole in the desert might provide us with an entertaining drive. We were not to be disappointed with the desert alive with fiddleneck, phacelia, brittlebush, chia and more in full bloom. There were also interesting animals too, including a beautiful Red Racer snake, a pretty Western Zebra-tailed Lizard and an adorable White-tailed Antelope Squirrel or two.

We arrived at the springs and I could almost immediately hear the tinkling bell like call of Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Of course, the little buggers didn’t want to give themselves up too easily and we spent quite a few minutes trying to pick out ones that would sit still long enough for the whole group to get their eyes on. Eventually though we had another target species in the bag. We then had time to just enjoy watching birds coming in to this desert oasis including Fox Sparrows, Lazuli Buntings and our only Olive-sided Flycatcher of the trip. We even picked up a nice Greater Roadrunner to add to our growing trip list.

After eating some amazing Pho at the kind of place that can probably only exist in the Mojave Desert, a Pho/Pizza/Donut joint, we headed back out to California City where we eventually garnered fantastic close up views of Lesser Nighthawks hunting. Another wonderful way to wrap up a day in the desert.

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California Condor – Luke Tiller

Day 6

This morning found us winging our way west towards a late morning search for California Condors. This gave us a little time in the morning to stop and check a migrant trap for birds. Though the trap itself was a little underwhelming, we did manage to uncover a number of prized Tricolored Blackbirds with a handful of Yellow-headed Blackbirds mixed in to the flock.

As we headed up towards the mountains we picked up our first interesting raptor species of the day in the shape of two Swainson’s Hawks soaring northwards. Our first stop to scan for California Condors proved to be a good one when a cursory check picked up a handful of them soaring out over a distant ridgeline. After a while enjoying scoped views we decided to head to pastures new and hope that we could pick up another target bird.

As a tour leader finding time to just bird or picking up target birds in unexpected places is always a high point of any trip. I thought it worth exploring a spot for Yellow-billed Magpie that was closer to our condor spot than the regular one to see if we could track them down and allow us more flexibility on the rest of the day. This panned out very nicely when less than an hour later we found ourselves staring point blank at a beautifully yellow-billed black-and-white corvid and we even managed to pick up a fierce Prairie Falcon soaring overhead into the bargain.

With the magpie under our belt we now had free range to explore for the rest of the day. After a great authentic diner lunch, we headed back to our previous California Condor rendezvous spot. Here we soon picked up a condor overhead and with some nifty driving soon found ourselves surrounded by an incredible eight condors all of which performed magnificently for us. An unforgettable encounter with a species that had once been so close to extinction! Amazing!!!

With our desire for incredible condor encounters satiated, we headed to look for a couple of species that had previously eluded us in the mountains. Incredibly on route we ran across two more Mountain Quail (or more they ran across the road in front of us) for another sighting of these normally elusive birds.

Our stop in the mountains of Ventura were both fun and productive. First, we picked up the good looks at Green-tailed Towhee that had previously eluded us, then I heard the distinctive tooting of a Northern Pygmy Owl. We eventually managed to garner good looks at this adorably ferocious little diurnal owl at the top of a nearby conifer, though I hope participant’s shots turned out better than my digiscoped effort. Most excitingly the pygmy owl of the coastal mountains is one of those species that may find itself split off from those in the interior in the future. Let’s face it though, armchair tick or not, any owl sighting is always a fun one.

Leaving the mountains, a couple more allegedly elusive Mountain Quail scurried across our path and were even kind enough to pose for photos! Fifth time lucky! Another incredible moment.

We enjoyed a nice early end to the day’s proceedings before heading out to another great spot for more Californian beer and pizza.

 

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Forster’s Tern – Luke Tiller

Day 7

We awoke to disappointing news that our boat to Santa Cruz Island, in order to look for Island Scrub-Jays, had been cancelled due to rough seas. A quick call in to friends connected me to a captain of one of the boats and we discovered that there was an outside chance that the boat might be on tomorrow though forecasts were less than ideal. That said there’s no point crying over spilt milk, so we got ourselves on the road and went out looking for birds.

We started off on the beach in Ventura where a couple of shorebirds added to the morning’s fun including Lesser Yellowlegs and a spectacular female Red-necked Phalarope that was doing its thing: spinning like a top in a pond looking for food. Also on site were a couple of nice Bonaparte’s Gulls and out on the water we picked up both Pacific Loons and Brandt’s Cormorants.

A drive along the Malibu coastline is always a nice one, especially when at the end of it you find yourselves looking at adorable little Snowy Plover chicks. We then shared our packed lunch inadvertently with a fearless Western Gull and got to see our second Sora of the trip just sauntering out on some mudflats. Add to that a couple of new gulls, including some chocolate brown young Heermann’s, and we’d had ourselves another productive stop.

A few more stops on the day included a quick one to pick up Wrentit, just in case we had no time for land birds tomorrow, and one to tick off the oddly missing Cassin’s Kingbird from our checklists. A place where I’ve had rails before turned up a lingering Golden-crowned Sparrow and a new place to explore provided nice looks at Forster’s Terns and swallows of various stripes.

 

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Island Scrub-Jay

Day 8

We started our day with the good news: that the boat would run to Santa Cruz, but with the bad news that the seas could be pretty rough. Thankfully we had built in a clean up day for the tour which had now become our boat day. Spoiler alert: we made it out to the island and back without losing anything overboard – including our lunches 😉

We headed out onto the water with what I believe were about eight-foot waves. It wasn’t making for the greatest conditions for spotting small alcids, but it was definitely pretty good for spotting shearwaters – even if holding binoculars steady was somewhat challenging. We were soon enjoying great views of Sooty Shearwaters in good numbers and eventually managed to pick up a few Black-vented Shearwaters that were lingering late into the season.

As we got closer to Santa Cruz we had good looks at a winter plumaged Common Murre followed by a couple of Cassin’s Auklets and eventually one Scripps Murrelet that was sat on the water. Not bad for small birds on rough seas.

We had hardly had time to finish our orientation talk on the island before we had a couple of beautiful Island Scrub-Jay sightings. These handsome birds are a real highlight of the tour and distinct in plumage and size from their mainland cousins. We then had time to pick up a couple of Pigeon Guillemots, enjoy a little downtime, have our packed lunch and pick up an adult Bald Eagle soaring overhead before boarding the boat for the return journey.

The seas were perhaps rougher on the return journey, and we still needed Scripp’s Murrelet sightings for those that had managed to miss them on the way out. Just as we were giving up hope of spotting any Scripps’s Murrelets we picked up a pair on the water for what, under the circumstances, were great views! We enjoyed the last few minutes on the boat as flocks of hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes passed us by and rafts of spectacular breeding plumaged Pacific Loons took off in front of us us. We arrived back in the harbor safe and sound, greeted by our first Black Oystercatchers of the tour.

A drive to Los Angeles and some fond farewells ended a fun and productive week-long tour of Southern California. Over the eight days we had picked up over 230 species of birds including those not countable under ABA rules. Highlights included a wealth of localized and sometimes difficult to find species including: Spotted Dove, California Gnatcatcher, Scaly-breasted Munia, Ridgway’s Rail, Gray Vireo, Tricolored Blackbird, Mountain Quail, Spotted Owl, LeConte’s Thrasher, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, California Condor, Yellow-billed Magpie, (Pacific) Northern Pygmy Owl, Snowy Plover (chicks), Black-vented Shearwater, Scripps’s Murrelet and Island Scrub-Jay as well as those myriad birds with California in their name. The great birds were complimented by great scenery, wildlife, food, beer and company.


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