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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

California: The South

The Southern Coast, Santa Cruz Island, the Salton Sea, and the Mojave Desert

2011 Tour Narrative

We found nearly all of the expected specialties on this year’s California tour, including all of the coastal chaparral and oak woodland species, the endemic Island Scrub-Jay and the endangered California Gnatcatcher, the Yellow-footed Gull, Le Conte’s Thrasher, and the often elusive Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Rarities included two juvenile Ruffs, a frigatebird species, an American Oystercatcher, a Neotropic Cormorant, two Bobolinks, including one at the Salton Sea where it was only recorded on a few occasions, and an adult male Orchard Oriole.  Perhaps the rarest sight was large hail stones and torrential rain falling in the Imperial Valley with the temperature only in the mid 80’s! 

Our tour began with a dawn departure from south of LAX.  Despite some LA traffic, we were on the coast within 45 minutes and shortly thereafter out of most of the urbanization.  Our first stop was Malibu Lagoon where we were eventually entertained by splendid views of an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird.  The many females and immatures present were also likely that species.  Looking with scopes over to the beach we found a variety of shorebirds including Whimbrels, both Black and Ruddy Turnstones, and a number of Snowy Plovers hiding in their fox holes.  We also had excellent comparative views of Royal and Elegant Terns.  Farther up the coast we found both Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots (the former species considered established) and a calling coastal slope (aculeata) White-breasted Nuthatch.  Next was Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County where we enjoyed fine views of nearly all of the chaparral and oak woodland species.  This included California Quail, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Wrentit, California Thrasher, and California Towhee.  At nearby La Jolla Canyon over lunch we enjoyed watching two Rufous-crowned Sparrows and California Towhees drinking at slit rock water trap right next to our picnic table.  Certainly the highlight of a long day was our time in the Ventura County Game Preserve on the Oxnard Plain.  Larry Sansone was our guide and we saw numerous raptors including multiple White-tailed Kites and two Peregrine Falcons.  But the real highlight was the shorebirds.  Scarcer species included three Pectoral Sandpipers, a Baird’s Sandpiper and two juvenile Ruffs.  We had side by views at close range of the more numerous species including Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Least and Western Sandpipers. Also notable were good views of a juvenile Sora and a Virginia Rail (congratulations Chris!).  Nearby we did locate a single adult male Tricolored Blackbird.

Our crossing to and from Santa Cruz Island from Ventura Marina was uneventful – a scattering of Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters and two Pomarine Jaegers on the way out and four Northern Fulmars (likely summered locally) on the return were the highlights.  It was nice to see that Island Scrub-Jays seemed to have increased a bit from very low numbers over the last few years.  We had excellent views of some five birds.  Otherwise we had a few migrants and missed a Sage Thrasher seen by two observers in a Bird Finders British group.  An immature Black-chinned Hummingbird was very notable, at least through 1981; it was unrecorded on the Channel Islands.  Later in the afternoon we noted a number of rocky shorebirds including eleven Black Oystercatchers and single fairly pure appearing American Oystercatcher.  Also notable were two Wandering Tattlers and ten Surfbirds.

Our first stop the next morning was Huntington Garden south of Los Angeles, one of the last places where Spotted Doves can still be found.  We found three easily.  At Huntington Beach Central Park we found a variety of migrants including Black-headed Grosbeaks, and both Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles along with a handful of Nutmeg Mannikins.  At Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve we saw one of the adult Reddish Egrets that has been present here since mid summer.  We also got to watch a half dozen of early Dunlins and had three juvenile Red Knots.  At the Newport Pier, we missed the juvenile Pigeon Guillemot that had been present, but most of the group had a frigatebird (species?) for a few seconds.  The dark head indicated that it was an adult female and was either a Great or more likely a Magnificent.  This species has become much rarer in California in recent decades.  We finished at Crescent Bay State Park where we easily located the endangered California Gnatcatcher and followed them around for a good while.

We started the next morning at dawn at the Newport Pier and watched a half dozen Parasitic Jaegers, some of which were quite close.  Also of note was an adult male Surf Scoter.  The ocean off La Jolla was very quiet bird wise, but we did have a full adult Red-throated Loon flying south just offshore, a very early date for southern California, so early that I wondered about local summering, but none had been reported. We also had a single adult Pelagic Cormorant fly by. At the mouth of the San Diego River we located two adult Little Blue Herons and later in the Cuyamaca Mountains we finally located and got excellent views of a handful of Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  Late in the day we met the legendary Guy McCaskie at Fig Lagoon in the Imperial Valley and he showed us an adult Neotropic Cormorant (casual in California) and a juvenile Solitary Sandpiper.  He would be with us for the next two days.  A juvenile Ash-throated Flycatcher was a bit late.

On our first day at the Salton Sea we started at the Imperial Irrigation Wetlands just north of Calipatria.  Here we had a number of rails running around of three species, including the endangered Southwest yumaensis race of the Clapper Rail.  Also notable were both American and Least (congratulations Lynne!) Bitterns.  We next birded for land birds along International Road south of Niland.  Surprising finds were a Bobolink, the third record for Imperial County, and Guy’s first since 1965, and an adult male Orchard Oriole (about a half dozen records for Imperial County, but the age was as unusual as the species).  Birding along the edge of the Salton Sea we found about 15 Yellow-footed Gulls (all adults).  Several Ruddy Turnstones were also of interest.  At feeders in Brawley we had good views of several Costa’s Hummingbirds.  Up at Salton City we were unable to find a juvenile Sabine’s Gull that Guy had had the day before, but did have excellent studies of two “Large-billed” (rostratus) Savannah Sparrows.  This taxon is certainly a separate species from at least the mainland North American populations of Savannah Sparrows (includes princes from Sable Island off Nova Scotia).

On our second morning we birded along a bluff over the New River near Brawley where we saw Gila Woodpecker and a scattering of migrants.  A flock of some 100 Turkey Vultures getting up was notable, clearly indicating fall movement in that species. We had good views of a male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. We saw more migrants at Finney Lake, including a rare and late Lucy’s Warbler, my personal first sighting in the Imperial Valley.  Along the edge of the Salton Sea we found a number of interesting birds including a Pacific Golden-Plover in a flock of 250 Black-bellied Plovers, two first year Franklin’s Gulls and a very late Gull-billed Tern.  We studied more Yellow-footed Gulls (including a 1st and 2nd cycle birds) and two more “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrows. 

Our first stop the next morning was Desert Center an oasis in the Colorado Desert.  We had a good scattering of migrants including a rare (but regular) Northern Waterthrush.  Several Osprey and a Prairie Falcon were also of note.  Later up at Table Mountain we watched many Pygmy Nuthatches coming to water.  Several White-headed Woodpeckers were almost comical in trying to get water at the running faucet.  Also notable were two Cassin’s Finches and several Band-tailed Pigeons.  We then continued on to Mohave for the evening.

We started the next morning at the Silver Saddle Club at Galileo where there were quite a few migrants.  Highlights included six Vaux’s Swifts, two Cassin’s Vireos, thirty Warbling Vireos (the most I can recall seeing at any one location), an immature male American Redstart,  and a Bobolink (acting strange as it was perched high in the willows and was skulking).  Also notable was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (early) and a male aculeata (by call) White-breasted Nuthatch.  We enjoyed the many Sage (and several Black-throated) Sparrows running around with their tails in the air.  They all appeared to be the intermediate appearing (but genetically closer to coastal belli) canescens subspecies.  Later at nearby California City we noted the two adult Ross’s and one Cackling (minima subspecies) Goose, all of which had summered, but had arrived as wild birds.  After lunch we went to the Knecht Ranch where we were entertained by Louise’s tame Le Conte’s Thrashers.  We finished the day at Cerro Coso Community College at Ridgecrest where we had very good views of two roosting Long-eared Owls. 

On our final morning we started up Nine Mile Canyon in the early morning where Jimmy and the group got to see their Chukars.  We had many.  At the top of the canyon we had an immature columbarius Merlin flying west and later had several hundred Pinyon Jays, all flying southeast.  At the Williams house we enjoyed numerous hummingbirds and had a single Clark’s Nutcracker and a female Williamson’s Sapsucker.  A singing and still territorial Plumbeous Vireo was well studied.  Several White-breasted Nuthatches here were of the interior tenuissima subspecies, easily identified by their high chattering calls.  Later at nearby Chimney Creek Campground we compared the calls to White-breasted Nuthatches of the aculeata subspecies.  This is the only location where I believe both taxa occur regularly.  There may well be species level differences.  Later at the Lancaster sewage ponds we noted eight juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers, two juvenile Sanderlings (scarce but regular in migration), and a Snowy Plover.  We finished the day near the mouth of the Los Angeles River near Long Beach where we watched a half dozen Orange Bishops, including two colorful males in alternate plumage and engaging in a comical flight display. Our trip concluded with dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

– Jon Dunn

Updated: October 2011