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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

California: The South

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

2017 Narrative

Tour Summary

Our Southern California tour this year recorded a little over 200 species.  We found nearly all of the hoped for target species, including California Quail, Ridgway’s Rail (interior yumanensis subspecies), Yellow-footed Gull, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, California and LeConte’s Thrashers,  and two subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow.  We encountered a fine variety of western migrants.  Rarities included a Ruff, a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Clay-colored Sparrow.


Our tour began with a “sit” on the San Diego Freeway.  Welcome to LA and its legendary “rush hour” traffic.  But soon enough we headed west on the Interstate 10 (Santa Monica Freeway) and headed up the coast to Malibu Lagoon.  Here we found a number of hummingbirds, presumably most of them Allen’s, but there were no adult males, so identification is basically not possible in the field.  But one bird was molting primaries, which indicates Allen’s.  Rufous molts after it reaches its wintering grounds in southern Mexico.  Around the lagoon were a fine variety of terns including good comparisons of Elegant, Royal, and Caspian.  An immature Common Tern was also noted and several Least Terns present were notably late.  Nearby at Pepperdine College we saw a single Peregrine Falcon and a female type Hooded Oriole flew over.  A small flock of “exotic” Black-hooded Parakeets (not yet officially part of the California List) were present.  Continuing up the coast we stopped at Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County.  Most notable here were two well-seen Bell’s Sparrows of the dark nominate subspecies, perhaps a separate species from the paler Mojave interior subspecies (songs differ).  While this species nests very locally in the interior of the Santa Monica Mountains, this is the first time I’ve ever noted it along the coast.  A Rufous-crowned Sparrow was also noted it, and another was well-photographed by a tour participant.  California and a few Spotted Towhees were noted as were Wrentits and a covey of California Quail. After a picnic lunch in La Jolla Canyon we headed up to the Oxnard Plain.  Here Larry Sansone joined us and took us around the private preserve.  Shorebirds are always the highlight here, except in mid-winter after the hunting season closes when waterfowl are abundant.  Our highlight was a wintering female Ruff (or Reeve), here wintering for its 4th winter.  We also noted one or two juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers, both Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes and an abundance of Lesser Yellowlegs, including side-by-side comparisons with Greater Yellowlegs.  At nearby Arnold Road, we had excellent views (including several adult males) of small numbers of Tricolored Blackbirds on the sod.  This near California endemic has declined markedly over the last few decades and it is the first time in several tours we have seen them. 

The next morning was our boat trip to Prisoner’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island.  While awaiting departure, we noted four Black Oystercatchers in the harbor.  Our trip over (and our return) was done at high-speed, so pelagic species were only “briefly” noted.  We did see a few dozen Black-vented Shearwaters and several Pink-footed Shearwaters and Pomarine Jaegers.  While on the island, we found our target species fairly easily, the endemic Island Scrub-Jay.  Also noted were two Pacific-slope Flycatchers (presumably Channel Islands subspecies, insulicola, a single Brewer’s Sparrow (rare on the coast and the Channel Islands),and a number of sordida Orange-crowned Warblers (mostly confined to the Channel Islands).  An adult Bald Eagle flew over the harbor here, and a tour participant photographed a Green-tailed Towhee, a rare species on the coast, and even rarer on the Channel Islands. 

We left Camarillo this morning after breakfast for Los Angeles and beyond.  We stopped first in Compton where Steve located two Spotted Doves.  This formerly widespread introduced species (for over a century) is now confined to just a few a birds in south Los Angeles, and a few more in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island,  a Cooper’s Hawk free zone!  Our next stop was Huntington Beach Central Park.  Here we had a nice variety of migrants, including Bullock’s Orioles, and resident species such as Nuttall’s and Downy Woodpecker.  Here were a variety of exotic species, all in one mixed flock!  These included Scaly-breasted Munias, native to southern Asia, and Bronze Manikins and Pin-tailed Whydahs, both native to Africa.  The whydahs actually parasitize the munias and manikins.  It wasn’t too unlike being in an outdoor aviary!  Next was Bolsa Chica where we had good studies of roosting shorebirds (Willets, Marbled Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers) riding out the high tide and also had two rather rare Reddish Egrets (adults).  “Belding’s” Savannah Sparrows were well studied.  This distinctive taxon is resident in the coastal marshes of southern California.  Our final stop was San Joaquin Marsh where we had good comparisons of mostly eclipsed plumaged Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal and a good sized flock of Black Skimmers.  We also had several Soras foraging at the edge of the marsh vegetation.

The next morning we departed for Laguna Beach and then up the coast to Crystal Cove State Beach.  Our goals were California Gnatcatcher and California Thrasher.  Instead we encountered the final event of a triathlon.  Yikes!  But park authorities did cater to non-event folks and eventually we reached the coastal sage habitat and easily found both species.  From here we headed south to San Diego and then east to the Cuyamaca Mountains where we birded and had lunch at Green Valley Campground.  Our main goal was to find Lawrence’s Goldfinch amongst the Lesser Goldfinches, but this year we found no goldfinches of any kind!  This erratic species is sometimes numerous here and in other years is entirely absent.  We did see Oak Titmice and Steller’s Jays and a few migrants, including a cooperative Black-throated Gray Warbler. Also notable were several Behr’s Metalmarks, a split from the Mormon Metalmark complex.  Later that afternoon we dropped down into the Salton Sink where we met the legendary Guy McCaskie.  He had located several scarce Baird’s Sandpipers in a flooded field and we eventually found one bird.  A Laughing Gull (in California regular only in the Imperial Valley) was also present.  Guy would accompany us for the next two days. 

On our first full day at the Salton Sea we started at Ramer Lake where along the marsh edges we had good studies of foraging Least Bitterns.  Common Gallinules were also present as were departing flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Two Neotropic Cormorants perched on snags were well-studied.  This Mexican species has just recently started breeding here at this location.  Nearby at Finney Lake we had excellent studies of several Lesser Nighthawks.  Here we also had good comparisons of Black-tailed and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and several Abert’s Towhees were noted.  On our way to the actual Salton Sea we stopped to admire several Burrowing Owls.  Working along the edge of the Salton Sea we had excellent comparative studies of both Yellow-footed and Western Gulls, the former with their deep yellow legs and feet.  This is one of the rarest gull species in the World, the breeding population being confined to the Gulf of California.  In California it is a post-breeding visitor to the Salton Sea, in now diminishing numbers as the Salton Sea shrinks in size.  A single Rock Wren was well-studied.  Guy led us into a fresh water inlet which was full of shorebirds and other waterbirds.  We heard a cacophony of Soras along with a few Virginia Rails.  Black Terns were numerous.  After lunch and a rest break we joined Guy at a flooded field east of Calipatria where we eventually located several juvenile Stilt Sandpipers, a scarce species in California, but regular here in Imperial County.  A flock of thirty Greater White-fronted Geese (all adults except for two juveniles) had just arrived from the north.  We estimated six hundred Long-billed Curlews in this field.  We found a few migrants around Calipatria including Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers and a single Willow Flycatcher.  We concluded our birding with a study of hummingbirds at feeders in Brawley.  These included Anna’s and Black-chinned and several Costa’s, including an adult male. 

On our next morning we visited the IID mitigation marsh north of Calipatria.  Here we had good studies of several Ridgway’s Rails of the interior yumanensis subspecies.  At the Wister Unit Guy showed us two roosting Great Horned Owls and two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers were also present.  We also admired a number of stunning Roseate Skimmers.  We checked the migrant yards again and here Bob located a male Red-breasted Nuthatch, a scarce species in the Imperial Valley and likely indicating an incursion of this species this winter into the lowlands.  Before lunch we stopped at Cattle Call Park where we had good views of several Gila Woodpeckers.  It reached 109 degrees this afternoon. We had another fine dinner at the Town Pump.

We awoke to a toasty and humid 87 degrees, but it was much dryer and cooler at our main birding spot, Desert Center.  Along the way in Box Canyon we had good studies of Gambel’s Quail and also a Coyote (another seen at Desert Center).  Desert Center had many migrants, especially sparrows.  We counted over 50 Savannah Sparrows and amongst the Spizella sparrows (Brewer’s and Chipping) we found a rare Clay-colored.  A flock of 18 Yellow-headed Blackbird consisted mostly of adult males.  A female Vermilion Flycatcher was noted as were ten immature Lazuli Buntings.  Overhead a dark morph adult Swainson’s Hawk was viewed distantly (a migrant).  From here it was mostly a driving day.  We only stopped at Kramer’s Junction, in the Mohave Desert.  Here at the solar pond were a number of shorebirds including a number of Baird’s Sandpipers and many phalaropes (Wilson’s and Red-necked).

The next morning we visited Galileo Hill and the Silver Saddle Club.  Here we met Bob Barnes who would accompany us the next day and a half.  We stopped along the way to admire a Prairie Falcon on a telephone pole.  At Galileo Hill we found many migrants.  Many were flycatchers, mostly Willow Flycatchers and Western Wood Pewees, some 20 of the latter species.  We also had an Olive-sided Flycatcher and an adult male Phainopepla.  Sparrows included stunning Black-throated and the Mojave subspecies (canescens) of Bell’s Sparrow, much paler than the coastal nominate subspecies and perhaps a separate species.  Warblers included Black-throated Gray, a single Townsend’s and several MacGillivray’s.  Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks were present.  We also located a rare (for California) female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  After a picnic lunch we stopped briefly at California City where Bob showed us a roosting Barn Owl.  For the afternoon we headed west to Tehachapi Mountain Park where at a small pond we watched many species coming into drink.  Most of them were Western Bluebirds and Mountain Chickadees, but we also had Oak Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch (distinctive sounding aculeata subspecies, likely a separate species), Wilson’s Warblers, and two Red-breasted Sapsuckers).  Overhead migrant Vaux’s Swifts and Violet-green Swallows were present.  A little higher up we found several Pygmy Nuthatches. 

On our final day of birding we started again at Galileo Hill.  Migrants were fewer, but did include a Hammond’s Flycatcher.  From here we headed north to Inyokern and a local, magnificent backyard where the owner was gracious enough to allow us to look at birds there.  The main attraction was LeConte’s Thrasher, a half dozen or so came in close for the meal worms she provided.  Bell’s Sparrow (canescens) subspecies were also present.  Many hummingbirds visited (of three species) her feeders (mostly Costa’s).  From here we visited another local  yard where we had views of roosting Barn and Long-eared Owls.  After lunch we headed south for the long drive to Los Angeles where after dinner the tour concluded.  

Created: 04 October 2017