Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

California: The South

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

2015 Tour Narrative

In Brief: Our tour 2015 tour found all of the expected specialties including California Quail, Ridgway’s Rail, Yellow-footed Gull, Allen’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker,  Island Scrub-jay, California Gnatcatcher,  California and Le Conte’s thrashers, Wrentit, California Towhee,  Bell’s Sparrow, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  Migrants were probably scarcer than usual, but included most of the expected western species along with a few rarities including Lesser Black-backed Gull, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Tropical Kingbird, Virginia’s Warbler, American Redstart (two), Summer Tanager, and a juvenile Painted Bunting.  Two roosting Long-eared Owls were also notable. Probably the greatest surprise was a full adult Red-billed Tropicbird just a few miles off Santa Cruz Island.  The most notable non-avian highlight was the Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island. 

In Detail: Our tour began with an early morning drive up the coast heading north from our hotel, near the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  After leaving Santa Monica, the coast became less developed and the drive from Los Angeles County to southwest Ventura County was quite picturesque.  Our first stop was at Malibu Lagoon and the Adamson House.  Here we had a wide variety of water birds, including Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstone.  Terns included good comparisons of Caspian, Royal and Elegant and several Common Terns (an uncommon fall migrant) with a Common Murre was just offshore.  Land birds included Ash-throated Flycatcher and California Towhee.  Several southbound Vaux’s Swifts flew over and we happily located an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird which perched for extended periods of time in a low bush.  Further up the coast at Zuma Canyon we found a few Pacific-slope Flycatchers along with a small flock of “exotic” Black-hooded Parakeets.  At Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County we had excellent studies of several Wrentits and a few White-throated Swifts cruised high overhead.   After a late morning lunch at La Jolla Canyon we ventured a short distance up the coast to a gun club where our guide, met us and escorted us around the ponds.  Here we had a good variety of shorebirds that were extremely cooperative with numerous Lesser Yellowlegs along with a few Greater Yellowlegs standing literally side by side.  Uncommon species included Pectoral Sandpiper (a small number of juveniles present) and Solitary Sandpiper.  Other species of note included White-tailed Kite, Bank Swallow, and a juvenile Peregrine Falcon that we literally drove right up to for a closer look.  A Lesser Nighthawk was briefly seen by one of members and the leader.

Our next morning began at Ventura Marina for our ferry trip to Santa Cruz Island.  Although it is a high-speed trip (only about an hour), we spent a welcome bit of time with a pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins and a couple of Humpback Whales.  There were also numerous Black-vented Shearwaters present along with a few Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters and several Pomarine Jaegers. A dark morph Northern Fulmar was briefly seen by some.  Later, and dramatically, just a few miles off Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island we literally came upon a full adult Red-billed Tropicbird.  Which immediately flushed then landed nearby, and the captain graciously approached it two more times for all to get good views.  Keep in mind that most of the passengers were not birders!  Once we arrived at Prisoners Cove, we birded the canyon.  Migrants were scarce, although a briefly seen “Oregon Junco” was unusually early.   We did locate and had excellent views of several endemic Island Scrub-Jays, all of which had colored leg bands.  Other species of note included the local Channel Islands race (sordida) of Orange-crowned Warbler.  Other than the jay, undoubtedly the best sighting was the Island Fox, a diminutive Gray Fox, but now recognized as a separate species.  It was quite oblivious to being approached and eventually we all had great views.  Later, upon returning to the harbor we noted all of the regular rocky shorebirds including Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone. 

The following morning (Saturday) we headed southeast and drove through a traffic-free Los Angeles.  We spent about 45 minutes searching on the south side (Huntington Park) for Spotted Dove, but found none and other than Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley and Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, it appears that this long-established introduced species is about extirpated.  At Huntington Beach Central Park in Orange County, we discovered that we arrived on the scene of a civil war reenactment!  This undoubtedly impaired our birding somewhat.  Still we had Downy and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and an American Redstart (rare in California).  Thirty Marine Blues were also of interest.  At nearby Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley we spotted a rare migrant Virginia’s Warbler and also had excellent studies of several Vaux’s Swifts and Hooded Orioles.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher was noted and we eventually (thanks to Brian Daniels) located a small group of Scaly-breasted Munias (formerly known as the Nutmeg Mannikin).  Later after a short rest at our hotel we returned to the coast where we had good studies of an endangered California Gnatcatcher and two cooperative California Thrashers.  We finished the day at Laguna Beach watching several Black Oystercatchers.

The next day after breakfast we drove to San Diego and then east, stopping briefly at Lindo Lake where we were unable to locate Tricolored Blackbirds.  We continued on into the Cuyamaca Mountains at Green Valley Campground were we spent several hours viewing Lawrence’s Goldfinch,  we located several, approximately 25).  Sometimes they are fairly easy like this time, while others they seem to be absent.  Other species noted included Wild Turkey, Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Oak Titmouse,  White-breasted Nuthatch (several of the distinctive sounding coastal subspecies aculeata found, a likely future split), Western Bluebird, plus glimpses of several California Quail.  A variety of migrants were present including Warbling Vireo as well as Townsend’s and Wilson’s warblers.  A Dusky Flycatcher and a Summer Tanager (heard and seen by a few) were rare and unexpected.  Later we continued on to the Imperial Valley stopping at Seely to see a Vermilion Flycatcher.  North of El Centro we met Guy McCaskie who would accompany us for the next two days.  Guy is California’s most legendary birder.  Arriving from Scotland in 1957 he completely revolutionized California birding, making a huge impact continent-wide.  We met Guy at a flooded field along the road and he had a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper in the scope for us to study (a rather uncommon fall migrant).  Later at hummingbird feeders in Brawley we had excellent studies of hummingbirds including several Costa’s with the more numerous Black-chinned and Anna’s.

In the Salton Sea region we tallied nearly 150 species.  The water birds were the most notable and we tallied thousands of White-faced Ibis along with thousands of shorebirds and gulls.  Probably the highlight of every trip to this region, at this time of the year and earlier in the summer is the Yellow-footed Gull which is a post-breeding visitor here from the Gulf of California.  It is one of the World’s scarcest gulls.  We had excellent views of a dozen or more birds even in comparison with the scarce (for here, but increasing) Western Gull.  Several were heard giving the low pitched series of calls.  We also noted many Laughing Gulls along with a few Franklin’s.   A single Lesser Black-backed Gull is still considered rarity in California but is increasing.  This one was early as well.  Another increasing species is Neotropic Cormorant, counting some 27 birds in one day.  (This species was unrecorded for California prior to 1971.) Other species of note included Gambel’s Quail, Least Bittern, White-tailed Kite, Ridgway’s Rail (local yumanensis subspecies); Virginia Rail and Sora, Greater Roadrunner, White-winged and Common Ground-Doves, Lesser Nighthawk, numerous Burrowing Owls, Gila  and Ladder-backed woodpeckers, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhee.  Migrants included several Blue Grosbeaks along with superb studies of the Pacific ridgwayi subspecies of Nashville Warbler.  One of the distinctive features of the Nashville Warbler is the golden-yellow rump which was readily apparent.  With different ranges (from the eastern nominate ruficapilla subspecies), behavior, and vocalizations, these two might better be considered separate species.  If split, these western birds would likely be given the English name Calaveras Warbler.  Calaveras is a county in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains, where many western Nashvilles breed and where Mark Twain spent time.  Several Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers were also found in the flooded fields.  Rarities included a Tropical Kingbird and a briefly seen juvenile Painted Bunting, both in Niland.  Non-avian highlights included a Coachwhip (“Red Racer”).

The next day was mostly a driving day.  We spotted three Red-breasted Mergansers along with two Peregrine Falcons at the north end of the Salton Sea.  At Mecca we turned northeast towards Desert Center, a famous migrant trap.  Migrants were scarce today, but we noted a Vermilion Flycatcher and a MacGillivray’s Warbler along with numerous other migrants.  Probably the highlight was two Prairie Falcons that flew over and circled overhead.  On the return we stopped at Chiraco Summit where we had excellent studies of a female Broad-billed Hummingbird, a Southwestern species that is of casual occurrence in California.  Ironically, others that chased the bird later in the day also found a Hermit Warbler in the same courtyard, a species we all would have like to have seen too!  From there we headed northwest to the Mohave Desert.  We arrived at a shorebird pond at Kramer Junction during a torrential thunderstorm.  Ironically just 25 miles west at California City it hadn’t rained a drop!  Here we spent the next two nights.

We started our next day at Galileo Hill, perhaps the best desert oasis for migrants in California. We would spend the next two mornings in this area, the first day being decidedly more “birdy” than the second.  We estimated some 30 Western Tanagers along with several warblers including MacGillivray’s and another American Redstart.  Other migrants included two Red-breasted Nuthatches, an early Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two “Russet-backed” Swainson’s Thrush, a Hermit Thrush (interior dull bird from the auduboni group of subspecies) and four Lazuli Buntings.  Later, after lunch at California City, we headed north to Inyokern to Louise Knecht’s place.  Here we had excellent studies of Bell’s Sparrows (canescens subspecies) and eventually found a single Le Conte’s Thrasher that Louise fed meal worms to.  Later Louise showed us her meal worm farm in one of the rooms of her house.  Our next location was Desert Memorial Park (a cemetery) in Ridgecrest, where we flushed a Barn Owl.  A Long-eared Owl was located here too, but was flighty.  Eventually we located its roosting spot and we had good scope views.  Nearby were two Burrowing Owls.  We located another and more visible roosting Long-eared Owl in the pines at nearby Cerro Coso College.

After a final morning at Galileo Hill we departed for Antelope Valley in the desert of northern Los Angeles County.  Here stopped at the sewage ponds where we counted some 10 Baird’s Sandpipers along with a scarce (for inland) Sanderling, a juvenile.  At a nearby pond we viewed more shorebirds that included a Solitary.  At nearby Apollo Park we searched unsuccessfully for a rare (for California) Prairie Warbler, but noted a few other migrants including a Townsend’s Warbler.  Several, now resident “wild” geese included a Greater White-fronted, a Snow, and two Ross’s.  On our return to south Los Angeles we checked two park areas where we again failed to find any Spotted Doves.  Most enjoyable was our relaxed farewell dinner where we recounted the days past and the good times together.

Jon Dunn -

Updated: September 2015