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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

California: The South

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

2019 Narrative

In Brief:

Our fall Southern California tour recorded about 220 species. We encountered good weather throughout and it wasn’t too hot in the normally scalding Imperial Valley in southeast California (Salton Sea). We encountered essentially all of the Southern California specialties including Ridgway’s Rail (interior yumanensis subspecies), Yellow-footed Gull, Island Scrub-Jay, California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, California and LeConte’s Thrashers, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Tricolored Blackbird. We had a fine variety of migrants in the Mohave Desert. Notable rarities found during the tour included three Ruffs, two Northern Waterthrushes, two American Redstarts, and a Lucy’s Warbler. Good views were also obtained of an Island Fox and a Bobcat.

In Detail:

Our tour began with a delicious dinner at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. The next morning began with a slow trudge through traffic on LA’s freeways, but as we hit the coast and headed north, the traffic eased. Our first top was Malibu Lagoon where we studied water birds. A variety of terns were present: Elegant, Forster’s and Royal, and we studied them carefully. A late and uncommon juvenile Least was present too. Lots of shorebirds including Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits and seventeen Snowy Plovers were present too, the latter crouched cryptically in the sand divots for shelter. We searched unsuccessfully for Allen’s Hummingbirds, but did see a flock of exotic Nanday Parakeets. This species, while not established yet, is locally present in the coastal lowlands from southern Ventura County and in parts of Los Angeles County. From here we stopped next at Sycamore Canyon where we had nice studies of Bushtits (coastal subspecies group with brownish crowns), Wrentits, and Western Bluebirds. California Towhees were present too along with Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Hutton’s Vireo, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (western obsucura subspecies). A covey of California Quail were also spotted and we had excellent views of White-throated Swifts flying overhead.  We concluded our day at the private ponds near Pt. Mugu where Larry Sansone acted as our guide. The ponds were full of shorebirds. We picked out the few Wilson’s Phalaropes from the many Red-necked and sifted through flocks of peeps finding both the scarcer Pectoral and Baird’s.  Twenty-five Lesser Yellowlegs was a good count. Notable rarities included two Pacific Golden-Plovers and two Ruffs (adult and a juvenile). This location is probably the best spot in California for this Eurasian species. Up to three Peregrine Falcons were constantly shifting the shorebird flocks. Two Reddish Egrets and three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were also notable as was a single Bobcat that we all got to see.  We finished the day with a delicious Thai dinner in Camarillo at Charn Thai.

The next morning we checked Ventura Marina where we spotted Black Turnstone, Surfbird and Wandering Tattler. Common Bottlenose Dolphins were in the harbor. Then we boarded the boat with Island Packers for our trip to Prisoners Cove, Santa Cruz Island. The passage to the island and the return was unexpectedly productive and we had a variety of pelagic species, including Sooty, Pink-footed, and Black-vented Shearwaters, Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers, and eighteen Sabine’s Gulls. A single Red Phalarope and an adult Common Tern were also noted as was a large pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins. After we dropped the passengers at Scorpion Cove we headed west on the island’s north coast spotting several Pelagic Cormorants, a Black Oystercatcher and a juvenile Pigeon Guillemot (seen by some) along the way. Our main target once we landed was, of course, the Island Scrub-Jay, and we saw several well. From California Scrub-Jay, we noted their larger size and especially the longer bill as well as the slightly deeper blue color, and pale blue under-tail coverts. Their calls were somewhat harsher. Migrants were few but included a Willow Flycatcher and two Wilson’s Warblers. The resident and somewhat different appearing and sounding sordida Orange-crowned Warblers were numerous. Certainly memorable was the tiny Island Fox, an endemic species to the Channel Islands, as it wandered by, near our group. It is related to the Gray Fox from the mainland, but is the size of a domestic cat.

The next morning was partly a driving day. We drove through the heart of Los Angeles admiring the various sights from wide-open freeways. It was, after all, Saturday. Our first stop was Huntington Park south of Los Angeles in Los Angeles County. Near the city center we found a mixed flock of White-winged and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. The latter has just been added to the California list of established exotic species and no doubt will soon be added by the ABA Checklist Committee too. The closely related White-winged Parakeet is still on the ABA list from the tiny Florida population, but is not considered established in California, which probably has a larger population than Florida. It would take pages to explain the intricacies! At a nearby neighborhood we had brief views of a pair of Spotted Doves, but they vanished before all could get adequate views. This Asian species was established more than a century ago, but they have almost completely disappeared, likely a result of the Cooper’s Hawk becoming a urban and suburban nesting species. They are still present in decent numbers at Avalon on Santa Catalina Island where Cooper’s Hawks are absent.  We did get views of several Allen’s Hummingbirds here. Continuing on to Huntington Beach Central Park we found a few birds, notably two Downy Woodpeckers and a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias. At the San Joaquin Marsh we had excellent view of a juvenile Solitary Sandpiper, a rare to uncommon migrant in California, and had good comparisons of Western and Clark’s Grebes. We finished the day at Crystal Cove south of Corona del Mar where we eventually and had good views of the endangered California Gnatcatcher and had superb views of a California Thrasher, a near California endemic.

The next morning we drove south to San Diego, then east. We stopped at Lindo Lake in Lakeside north of El Cajon. Here we got lucky and located a few Tricolored Blackbirds, including adult males. We studied their differences with scopes as they sat in the reeds. This threatened Pacific species has declined greatly over the last few decades. A long-staying Greater White-fronted Goose was noted as were several Wood Ducks. Next we headed up into the Cuyamaca Mountains where we stopped for an extended period at Green Valley. Lawrence’s Goldfinches are present at this time of year about every other year. This was an “on” year and we had good studies of several.  A Hutton’s Vireo and two Phainopeplas were also noted. From here we headed east over the crest and dropped down into the Imperial Valley (below sea level) where we spent the next few days. We joined the legendary Guy McCaskie just north of Westmorland and studied several Stilt Sandpipers along with four Baird’s Sandpipers that he had found earlier. After checking in to our hotel, we headed north to the edge of the Salton Sea. Along the way we stopped at a flooded field which was filled with shorebirds including 50 Lesser Yellowlegs (a very large count for California) and three juvenile Whimbrels (rare in fall in the interior of California) along with several thousand White-faced Ibis, some 150 Laughing Gulls (only part of California where this species is regular), a single briefly-seen Franklin’s Gull, and twenty Black Terns. Along the edge of the Sea we soon located our primary target, the Yellow-footed Gull, one of the scarcest species of gulls in the World. They are regular here from June to September, but are now present in reduced numbers due to the drying up of the Salton Sea with reduced water bird numbers. We saw six. Two recently arrived Herring Gulls were present too. They arrive here earlier than anywhere else in the state. Along the levees we noted a number of Burrowing Owls. We had a fine dinner that night at the Original Town Pump in Westmorland.

We spent the entire next day birding around the south end of the Salton Sea. We had many species of interest. These included Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Black Skimmer (50), Barn Owl, Lesser Nighthawk (10), Cota’s Hummingbird (a dozen), Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhees. We studied Yellow-footed Gulls again, seeing ten. Shorebirds of note included seven Baird’s, all juveniles, and a rare (for inland) juvenile Ruddy Turnstone. Two migrant Townsend’s Warblers were uncommon here for fall. Of particular note was the cooperative Ridgway’s Rail that gave us lengthy views. This is the interior and somewhat paler (from the two coastal California subspecies) yumanensis subspecies. A Sora was nearby.

The next day we checked new areas around the Salton Sea. We recorded additional Ridgway’s Rails and had a single Virginia Rail too, along with seven Least Bitterns. Other species of note included a somewhat early Wilson’s Snipe, Inca Doves along with Common Ground-Doves, a Great Horned Owl, two Vaux’s Swifts, a Gray Flycatcher, single MacGillivray’s and Black-throated Gray (our only one for the tour) Warblers, three Lark Sparrows, and five Bullock’s Orioles. We ventured south to study two Common Terns, actually sitting on the water at a reservoir with two Forster’s Terns,  giving good comparisons, and finished the day at Unit 1 where we located Guy’s adult Ruff along with a juvenile Solitary Sandpiper.

The next day was a driving day. We arose early to head north, then east, to Desert Center, a desert oasis. In Box Canyon we noted several migrant Vaux’s Swifts. Desert Center had a few migrants including a scarce (as a migrant) Yellow-breasted Chat and a rare migrant female type American Redstart. Other migrants included our first Lincoln’s Sparrow, a Black-headed Grosbeak, and eight Lazuli Buntings. From here we drove through much of the day to California City (Kern County) in the Mojave Desert.

The next morning we joined Bob Barnes, our guide for the day. We started at Galileo Hill, a high desert oasis, and noted a nice variety of migrant and resident species. These included Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing (three), Phainopepla, Nahshville (distinctive ridgwayi subspecies, a likely future split from the eastern subspecies, likely to be named the Calaveras Warbler). A Yellow-breasted Chat, and a rare (for California) Northern Waterthrush were noted. Our first Yellow-rumped Warbler (“Audubon’s”) was noted too. We studied a number of Bell’s Sparrows (paler canescens subspecies), largely confined to the Mohave Desert) and also found the striking Black-throated Sparrow. Later in the day near Inyokern we found some seven Barn Owls, additional Bell’s Sparrows and most importantly two of the scarce, local, and strikingly pale LeConte’s Thrashers. A Leopard Lizard was also present.

On our final birding day we returned to Galileo Hill where we found a rather large fall of migrants. We tallied some ten Western Wood Pewees, twelve Warbling Vireos, fifteen Western Tanagers, four Black-headed Grosbeaks, and twenty-five Lazuli Buntings. Warblers were common and included twenty-five Orange-crowns (including six of the interior subspecies, orestra), four Nashvilles, five MacGillivray’s and fifty Yellows. Black-throated Sparrows were numerous (eight tallied).  Scarcer species included a new Northern Waterthrush and an American Redstart, a Hammond’s Flycatcher, a Cassin’s Vireo, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Green-tailed Towhee, and a very rare (for this part of California) Lucy’s Warbler that was seen by a few. A colorful Desert Spiny Lizard was studied on a tree trunk. From here we headed west into the mountains to Tehachapi Mountain County   Park where we found a few montane species, notably Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch and the distinctive sounding Pacific subspecies (aculeata) of White-breasted Nuthatch, almost certainly a distinct species, one of three (other two being one from the interior West and the other in the East).  From here we headed south and back through Los Angeles, encountering some traffic as we neared our hotel. We finished the tour as we started it with a final dinner at Jino’s Pars.

Jon Dunn, 2019

Created: 30 December 2019