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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

California: The South

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

2021 Narrative

In Brief: Our tour this year recorded some 212 species including most of the targeted California specialties. These included California Thrasher, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black-vented and Pink-footed shearwaters, California Gnatcatcher, Island Scrub-Jay (our largest total ever recorded), Yellow-footed Gull, Ridgway’s Rail (yumanensis) subspecies, and LeConte’s Thrasher. Unfortunately, the extreme fire danger present led to the closing of all of Southern California’s National Forests so our itinerary was impacted. Rarities encountered included a Ruff, an adult male American Redstart, and a Bobolink. We had a nice selection and number of the regular western migrants. Much enjoyed were the superb views of the tiny Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island.

In Detail: We recorded some 212 species during our ten days which gives some idea of the diversity of species that can be found at this time of the year. And this excluded nearly all montane or foothill species as the National Forests were closed due to fire danger. For some key species like Lawrence’s Goldfinch, our chances became remote once the forests closed. As I write this, the virtual river of moisture has arrived in northern and central CA with 24-hour totals approaching 20 inches of rainfall at few spots. This is great news for the severe drought we have experienced the last several years.

Our tour began with a drive up dictated by Google Maps through the side streets of Santa Monica as we avoided much of the L.A. rush hour. Our first birding spot was Malibu Lagoon. Here we saw a few passerines, notably Oak Titmice and Bushtits and a single Black-headed Grosbeak along with two briefly seen Townsend’s Warblers. Of more interest were the Royal, Elegant and Caspian Terns all giving good comparisons, along with some shorebirds: Snowy and Semipalmated plovers, two Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Whimbrels. Nearby, just to the west of Pepperdine College we had nice studies of an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird. A flock of Nanday Parakeets also gave us very good views, including watching one bathe at a water fountain. This species is not yet accepted as being established in California but is from Florida. Up the coast at Sycamore Canyon State Park we had many chaparral species including a couple of dozen California Towhees. They were seemingly everywhere, sometimes almost at our feet. Other species noted included California Thrasher, Wrentit, and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Migrants included a Black-headed Grosbeak and two Pacific-slope Flycatchers. After lunch at La Jolla Canyon where we saw another Rufous-crowned Sparrow and a Lazuli Bunting, we carried on to a private wetland area which was full of shorebirds. We thank the kindness of Larry Sansone for guiding our group into this private reserve. Direct and close comparisons of Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes along with Western and Least Sandpipers, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were enjoyed. Other notable species included three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, five Pectoral Sandpipers (all juveniles), a juvenile Red Knot (our only one of the trip), a juvenile Peregrine Falcon and particularly three juvenile Solitary Sandpipers were all notable. On the one Solitary we closely studied, we could see the rich buff, not white, dorsal spots, characteristic of western subspecies, cinnamomea. Some six Northern Harriers cruised the wetlands.

The next morning, we started with a check of Ventura Marina and found Ruddy and Black turnstones, four Surfbirds and a Wandering Tattler. We also had good comparisons of a single immature Common Tern near several Forster’s. An adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron searched for crabs on the rocks as we queued up for the boat. A Harbor Seal along with California Sea Lions were also noted. On our crossing and return to Santa Cruz Island, we encountered more than the usual pelagic birds. These included Black-vented, Pink-footed and Sooty shearwaters and Parasitic and Pomarine jaegers. A single Red Phalarope was seen briefly. We stopped to enjoy many Long-beaked Common Dolphins, some 200. Once we landed on the island, we almost immediately noted Island Scrub-Jays. I have never seen so many or had them so cooperative. We saw some 25, but there could have easily been more. The oaks had produced a substantial acorn crop which the jays were utilizing. Other species noted included an immature Bald Eagle, Acorn Woodpeckers, Hutton’s and Warbling Vireos, Yellow and Orange-crowned warblers (resident sordida subspecies), a Cedar Waxwing and three Western Tanagers. A female type (could easily have been an immature male) Hooded Oriole was unusual. Much enjoyed was a well-seen Island Fox, hardly larger than a house cat. When we pulled into the dock after our return, a Peregrine Falcon shot over our boat at high speed.

After breakfast we drove east and south, “admiring” the scenery of Los Angeles and famous sights, like Hollywood. We stopped in south L.A. where we were unable to find the last of the Spotted Doves and also failed to find Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. We did see a flock of larger parakeets, likely Mitred Parakeets, but they could have been partly composed of Red-masked Parakeets. From here we continued on to Huntington Beach Central Park in Orange County where we had a scattering of migrants including Western Wood Pewees, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher and two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. This western subspecies, obscura, is rather distinct morphologically from the nominate eastern subspecies and has different vocalizations, particularly the song. Scaly-breasted Munias were found here, and a Tropical Kingbird was rare and early. Even more unusual was that it was an adult as indicated by tail molt. A number of Swinhoe’s White-eyes (zosterops simplex) here and later down in Irvine are part of a rapidly expanding and increasing population. They are likely to be added to the California and ABA lists soon if trends continue. After lunch we headed inland to the Santa Ana River. The temperature was at 100 here, but we did see the Ruff which has wintered here for nearly a decade with Long-billed Dowitchers. On our way to Crystal Cove State Park we stopped to study two juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers. At Crystal Cove we saw a variety of species including California Quail and a California Thrasher, but missed our main target species, California Gnatcatcher. We decided to return the next morning to search again.

The following morning, we returned to Crystal Cove State Park where we obtained superb views of a California Gnatcatcher. From here it was a short drive to lovely Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach. Here we obtained excellent views of Black Turnstones and three Black Oystercatchers. A male Surf Scoter (likely a summering bird) was just offshore. We then continued on to the Tijuana River Valley (Birds and Butterflies Garden) south of San Diego. A pair of Lawrence’s Goldfinches had summered here, and we hoped to see one of them visit the water drip. We had lots of Lesser Goldfinches and a couple of Americans, but no Lawrence’s. One man there was there for his third day! Two migrant Townsend’s Warblers were of interest as were two Anise Swallowtails. From here we headed east to Lindo Lake in Lakeside. A few Tricolored Blackbirds are still present here, but we were unable to find them. A Greater White-fronted Goose (permanently here for more than a decade) was noted as was an aculeata White-breasted Nuthatch. We listened to its distinctive calls, likely indicative that it is a separate species from both the “interior West” and the “Eastern” groups. After lunch here we traveled east and down into the hot Imperial Valley. Here we joined our guide and California birding and ornithological legend, Guy McCaskie. He had located eight early Sandhill Cranes in a flooded field. A number of shorebirds were present too which included a Pectoral Sandpiper; an adult Peregrine Falcon paid a visit. We also got superb views of a half dozen Burrowing Owls.

The next day we birded the south end of the Salton Sea. It is always hot here at this time of year, but Southern California was suffering a heat wave. That day the high temperature in Westmorland reached 116 degrees! Needless to say, we knocked off during the hottest hours, both for lunch and a rest. Still, we had lots of birds. Our main goal was Yellow-footed Gull, one of the world’s rarest gulls. It nests on islets and islands in the Gulf of California and small and reduced numbers regularly visit the Salton Sea in summer as part of their post breeding movement. We saw nine (all ages) and had excellent and prolonged views and also heard their distinctive long call. Other water birds included Laughing Gulls (only regular location this species occurs in the West) and Black Terns, and five Stilt Sandpipers (rare over much of the West, except around the south end of the Salton Sea). A female Lesser Scaup and “Black” Brant were unusual, the former for the early date. Other species of note included Common Ground and White-winged Doves, a Greater Roadrunner, Gambel’s Quail, an early Merlin of the pale richardsoni subspeces, a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and an Abert’s Towhee. After an afternoon break, we visited Riverview Cemetery in Brawley where we studied several Vermilion Flycatchers and noted two Gila Woodpeckers. A good collection of migrants was here too, including Willow Flycatchers, Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, along with two ridgwayi Nashville Warblers. This distinctive Pacific subspecies is likely a full species differing from eastern ruficapilla on range, vocalizations, morphology and behavior. Their breeding ranges are separated by some 500 miles (a gap from eastern British Columbia to eastern Saskatchewan). More unusual migrants included a Swainson’s Thrush (rare in fall in the interior of California) and a Yellow-breasted Chat. Later we visited some feeders in Brawley where we noted Black-chinned (including two adult males) and two Costa’s Hummingbirds and many Anna’s Hummingbirds. The three Selasphorus present were undoubtedly Rufous Hummingbirds.

On our second day at the Salton Sea, we started at dawn at the Imperial Irrigation District wetlands north of Calipatria. Our main goal was seeing a Ridgway’s Rail (interior yumanensis subspecies) and eventually we saw two birds and heard others. Here we also saw a two Least Bitterns and some ten Yellow-headed Blackbirds. A single White-tailed Kite made a brief appearance; it was rare at the Salton Sea and was our only one of the tour. In nearby Niland we located two Inca Doves and at the Pond Hunt Club we located seven Lesser Nighthawks, including superb views of one perched on a telephone line. The high temperature had cooled to 109. Later in the day after lunch at the hotel, we gave our thanks to Guy McCaskie for his leadership and companionship.

We left early the next morning for Desert Center, a desert oasis some 50 miles east of Indio and a good spot for migrants. Here there was a collection of migrant puddle ducks along with a scattering of migrant passerines. We noted a juvenile Lark Sparrow and three Lazuli Buntings and a single MacGillivray’s Warbler along with a Vermilion Flycatcher. An adult male American Redstart was a notable rarity. This was mainly a driving day. We took lunch at IN-N-OUT, a noted hamburger fast food chain in California and continued on to California City in the Mojave Desert.

The next morning we were joined by Alexia Svejda who took us south of California City in search of LeConte’s Thrasher. We were not successful but did note a number of Bell’s Sparrows (the distinctive mainly Mojave Desert subspecies, canescens, itself perhaps a distinct species) and a surprising Acorn Woodpecker flew overhead and landed briefly on an arm of a Joshua tree. Very small numbers of this oak-loving species sometimes wander out onto to the desert in early fall. We then ventured to the back side of the sewage ponds at California City where we did locate LeConte’s Thrashers, three of them, and eventually obtained excellent studies of them. Around Central Park we located four Barn Owls roosting along with a selection of migrants which included an unusual aculeata White-breasted Nuthatch. After a picnic lunch we headed up to Red Rock Canyon State Park where we looked for Cactus Wren and Black-throated Sparrow. We missed the wrens but had excellent views of several Black-throated Sparrows, perhaps our most striking and beautiful North American sparrow. Late in the day we visited a small golf course pond at California City where two Blue-winged Teal and a male Wood Duck were present along with a Dusky Flycatcher.

On our final day we returned to the golf course pond where the morning light presented excellent viewing opportunities in the cottonwoods and other vegetation. The migrants popped up at close range for excellent studies for most of the birds we saw. We recorded over 50 species just here. On the pond, the Wood Duck and one of the Blue-winged Teal were still present along with a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. Migrants included some 16 Yellow Warblers and a dozen Wilson’s Warblers along with two MacGillivray’s, four Willow Flycatchers, four Warbling Vireos, five Lazuli Buntings and a Brewer’s Sparrow. The Dusky Flycatcher was still present, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher was late. A Bank Swallow and a Vaux’s Swift flew over. New migrants included an immature male Black-throated Gray Warbler and a Cassin’s Vireo. Jon Feenstra’s sharp ears detected a flyover Lawrence’s Goldfinch. The rest of us didn’t hear it and no one saw it, including Jon! Earlier Jon had also heard a rare (for California) Bobolink and eventually it returned and attempted to land in the grass, but then flew off. We did get good flight views of this golden-buff bird and heard its distinctive “ink” calls. Later we headed south to the Antelope Valley and had lunch at Apollo Park. Amongst the Canada Geese were four summering Snow Geese. Amongst the swallows, some six Vaux’s Swifts were located. From here we headed back towards the Holiday Inn Express where our tour started. As expected, we hit a wall of traffic near the end of our return journey. After checking in and a bit of time off we returned to Jino’s Pars for a delicious final group dinner.

I would like to thank Jon Feenstra for all of his helpful assistance and advice, always good nature, and for his excellent ears. I have fond memories of that time when I had that top notch hearing!

- Jon Dunn

Created: 27 October 2021