California November 2007 Trip Report
As a birder from Belgium I visited Southern California with my parents in November. As attachments are not allowed on your list, I pasted the text body under this e-mail. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
Birding California through the eyes of an overseas birder
A California 8-24 November trip report
At first the prospect of birding California in November seemed not all that appealing. Indeed back home here in Belgium and actually a bit all over Europe, November is in general a rather quiet birding month. The peak of autumn migration is over and some of the more hardy wintering species have not arrived yet. Often the skies are low and grey and temperatures rather unpleasantly cool. The days can be dark and outings are too often accompanied by a slight drizzle. If the birds are thin on the ground, November is not the best month for other divertissements either: flowers are gone and -unless climate change stirs up things- usually most insects have died.
So you can imagine my parents reluctance when I first suggested them the possibility to join me in California where I had to visit San Diego for work reasons in the beginning of November. The reading I had done beforehand offered me already a glimpse of what could be, but nevertheless the expectations were not that high reaching.
Never on a trip before reality has surpassed that much our expectations. Indeed, we had a fabulous birding and natural history trip during a bit over 2 weeks we spent touring in Southern California. What seemed almost impossible beforehand came true: we even saw the desert in bloom!
Our main guide on this trip was the excellent "Birding in Southern California" guide by Brad Schramm. This was really the most detailed and accurate birding guide I have ever seen. It was a great and reliable companion on our trip.
Before starting off with our day-to-day account I would like to thank especially all very friendly local birders who helped made this trip the tremendous succes it was. Thanks a lot for answering my queries. A special word of thanks is reserved for Stanley W. and Eitan A. It was great birding with you, guys. I am very grateful you made such a special effort so that I would not miss any specialties in iconic birding spots like the famous "La Jolla Bench" and scenic Point Loma. Thank you so much!
Thursday 8 November: Huntington Beach
Yesterday evening it dawned to us why in our birding guide it was so explicitly written one should not hit the motorway between San Diego and Los Angeles during rush hour except at last resort. Long traffic jams were our part...
The next day was still overcast, but started nicely with a male Allen's hummingbird perched in a tree on a parking lot off Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach.
We first headed for Bolsa Chica. The estuary looked quite damaged at places with oil pumps constantly in business, but around the boardwalk birds were tame and plentiful and behind a dike some very nice mudflats appeared. A nice starter was a White-tailed kite. We got excellent views of Eared grebes, Surf scoters, 1 Horned grebe, Marbled godwits and a Peregrine. Best bird was a Reddish egret.
Next stop was the Upper Newport Bay. From atop the surrounding hills new housing developments were looming everywhere, but the river valley itself looked remarkably pristine. Plenty of shorebirds were out on the mudflats, as well as several Cinnamon teal and lots of Pintail, Green-winged teal and American wigeon. Highlight were 3 Black skimmers that even forced the godwits to move aside when gracefully skimming the undeep water. A big flock of thermalling Turkey vultures was joined by a Northern harrier and a group of swallows turned out to be Northern rough-winged swallows. A short walk through the bush towards the hidden pond yielded a few flyover Black-crowned night herons, a flock of Bushtits, a Say's Phoebe and a Common yellowthroat, but not the hoped for California gnatcatcher.
By then it was time to hit the road again, by now again approaching the worst of rush hour. So, we slowly ploughed our way through the very busy LA highway system. Even with motor ways twice as broad as in Belgium, the traffic jams still seemed endless.
Friday 9 November: Morro Bay
After all yesterday's traffic jams and LA that seemed to merge with coastal Orange county like almost one big city, you can imagine our delight to wake up the next morning in beautiful and quiet seaside Morro Bay which felt a bit like we had finally had arrived in wild California.
Here I started my habit of waking up at dawn (6am) to go for a 2-hour prebreakfast walk. I would join my parents for breakfast at 8am and the rest of the day we would bird together. We arrived in Morro Bay late in the evening, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked out into the street to be struck immediately by the imposingly beautiful Morro rock across the harbor.
I first decided to give a dry river bed at the other side of the rock a shot, but passerine migration was clearly almost over and the birds were very skulking.
Then it was time to tackle the rock itself. In the harbor below, my lifer Sea otters were sleeping wrapped in seaweeds. 1 Common murre and several Common loons were very obliging. I also met a very friendly local birder who was seawatching from that beautiful spot. Unfortunately, I had to get back soon for breakfast.
After breakfast, I visited "the Rock" again with my parents. By now, the sun came piercing through the clouds and offered us breathtaking views of the Peregrine pair putting up quite a show above our heads. Also seen were: Brewer's blackbirds, Anna's hummingbirds, Bewick's wrens, White-crowned sparrows and a Horned grebe. California ground squirrels were living between the boulders. In town more and more Monarch butterflies went on the wing when the temperatures rose.
A visit to beautiful Elfin forest yielded the only Hutton's vireo from the trip as well as scenic views of Morro bay with its huge flock of Black brent and some Caspian terns from the overlook.
We drove north along Highway 1. Not too far north from Morro bay we had our first Humpback whale swimming some 600m from shore. We also saw a Coyote, another Sea otter and a Black-tailed deer and a juvenile Bald eagle.
Unfortunately, the Highway was not passable south of Big Sur due to wildfire. So the northernmost point we visited along the coast was Piedras Blancas where big groups of Sea elephants were already hauled out on the beach.
Afterwards we retraced our steps to head for Monterey along an inland route. South of Salinas we saw 1 Loggerhead shrike perched on a wire.
Saturday 10 November: Monterey
As the weather forecast seemed to be most promising for our first day in Monterey, we decided to go immediately for a whalewatching trip. Monterey Bay Whalewatch took us out on a 4 hour trip into the bay. The captain was Richard T. and we were very happy they made a special effort to point out the birds for us. Highlights of the trip were several close groups of Risso's dolphins and at least 4 different Humpback whales (one surfacing right next to the boat). 2 Dahl's porpoises, 2 groups of Ocean sunfish and 1 Blue shark were also fun to watch. Sea otters were seen in the harbour, the California sea lions made an awful noise there too and 1 Elephant seal was seen way out at sea.
The birds started out great right in the harbour with a beautiful pair of Harlequin duck, 1 Pacific loon and several Common loons. Inshore several Rhinoceros and Cassin's auklets were seen as wel as 1 Pigeon guillemot. To our surprise however, the most common alcid we saw in Monterey was our "European" Common murre. I had expected much more Pacific alcids, but maybe it was too early in the season, maybe the recent red tides were in for this or maybe I just started from a wrong presumption. The most common tubenose was the Northern fulmar with quite some seen further out over the canyon -all of the nice dark morph. All Sooty shearwater flocks had clearly left the bay, as none was seen during the trip. An unexpected bonus however was our lifer Buller's shearwater. Out at sea there was also a beautiful light morph Pomarine skua. So we were very happy with the trip, the light and sea conditions were excellent (maybe the sea was a bit too quiet to blow in shearwaters or albatrosses) and we even still got excellent views of Humpback whales in Monterey's worst month for seeing whales.
The afternoon was short after the long trip so we explored the Monarch grove sanctuary in Pacific grove. The Monarchs were a special treat (many with tags), but we were wondering if numbers were maybe down from previous years as we heard some 7000 would be present now. We also wondered whether the single row of Eucalypse trees would provide enough shelter for the butterflies during the winter storms. In the surrounding park several Black-tailed deer were present as well as a Steller's jay, an Anna's hummingbird and several Acorn woodpeckers.
We ended the day driving along Ocean boulevard from Lover's point to the Lighthouse seeing several Harbour seals along the way.
Sunday 11 November: Monterey
This morning I resumed again my habit of pre-breakfast walks. During almost gale-force winds I settled on a bench at Point Pinos for a seawatch. The high winds brought in several close Northern fulmars and Sooty shearwaters just beyond the kelp line, as well as a single Pomarine skua -the same from yesterday?. I also did see several Sooty-type shearwaters with clearly no silvery wing linings, but having no experience with similar species I am hesitant to ID any as other shearwaters as I could not see any other defining characteristics. Loons were also much in evidence, but most in groups flying a bit further out at sea. There was also a heavy Surf scoter passage. Most alcids were again Common murres, with a few Rhinoceros and Cassin's auklets thrown in.
The highlight of today was our visit to Moss Landing. Along the beach there we spotted the only Snowy plover of the trip, as well as several Clark's grebes. Inside the harbour a group of 83 (!) Sea otters really stole the show. It was wonderful to see these charismatic creatures up close frolicking in the sheltered waters of the harbour. Several otters had coloured tags. There was also a big group of Harbour seals, an obliging Merlin and groups of Marbled godwits, Long-billed curlews and Willets waiting for low tide. Several Eared grebes, a Horned grebe, a Common loon, several Clark's and Western grebes and some Bufflehead were also floating in the harbour.
From Moss Landing we travelled inland to Elkhorn slough. At the parking lot we were greeted by a pair of White-tailed kite and a Red-shouldered hawk. We did not walk into the reserve, but continued by car further inland to Kirby park where several Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal were present, as well as Mexican stilts.
We were hesitating what to do next, but we made the good decision to return to Moss Landing which by now had been transformed into a great mudflat and shorebird paradise by the low tide. The Sea otters on the other hand had all but disappeared, so we felt very privileged we had seen them so well this morning. The shorebirds were really plentiful and often coming very close. The soft afternoon light allowed for perfect viewing conditions of the Marbled godwits, Snowy and Great white egrets, 4 White pelicans, Least and Western sandpipers, Dunlin, Sanderling, Long-billed curlews, Semipalmated plovers, Willets, Black-bellied plovers and -presumably Long-billed- Dowitchers.
We ended the day in Monterey Harbour with a Common murre, a Pied-billed grebe, several Common loons and a Black-crowned night heron.
Monday 12 November: Monterey
This morning I walked the coastline almost from Lover's point to Point Pinos in search for rock-loving waders. Black turnstones were plentiful and I saw my lifer Surfbird. Surprisingly not a single Wandering tattler was seen. The Black oystercatchers looked really pretty and a flock of Sanderling was around too. Crespi pond held 10 Black-crowned night herons, a Pied-billed grebe and a flock of Red-winged blackbirds.
After a brief visit to Cannery row we hit the road for Big Sur. Point Lobos State Park was nice and provided views of several Sea otters (including a mother with a baby in the kelp beds), but the place was not very birdy. Some stops along the road were good for our lifer White-throated swifts and some small kelp plants in the surf looked like cute small palm trees battered by the waves.
We missed the road into Garapata State Park, so our next stop was Andrew Molera State park. We went for a short walk seeing a Wrentit and Acorn woodpeckers. True highlight were 2 beautiful Lorquin's admirals sunning themselves. One California poppy was also still in bloom in one meadow.
Julia Pfeifer Big Sur SP was another nice stop. The Redwoods looked enormous and their bark lit up a warm brown in the late afternoon sun. We saw our first larder tree here with Acorn woodpeckers flying off and on. We also saw Lesser goldfinches, Chestnut-backed chickadees and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
We knew we were entering Condor country right now, so every soaring Turkey vulture was scrutinized with more than usual attention. Unfortunately we had heard from a friendly birder on our whalewatching trip that the roosting spot behind the Big Sur Lodge had been deserted. After another roadturn suddenly a much bigger bird appeared amongst the circling Turkey vultures. Amazing how big the size difference is! A parking spot was conveniently located there and we soon found ourselves looking elated at not just 1, but 3 California condors. Awesome! 2 were juveniles (one with a wing tag on the right wing, but even with our spotting scope it was not clearly readable) and 1 magnificent adult. They covered quite some distance and whilst soaring over the next 20 minutes they kept flying back and forth along the beautiful coast line. It was surprising to see how quickly they could almost disappear and then suddenly reappear again. For a nice finale, all 3 came soaring directly overhead providing magnificent views to disappear behind a hillcrest behind us. Wow!
The farthest point we went was Julia Pfeifer Burns SP. We then returned to Vista point where we hoped to catch the famous green flash at sunset. Alas, no green flash, but the sunset was breathtaking.
Returning in Pacific grove some Black-tailed deer crossed the road in the middle of town.
Tuesday 13 november: Monterey
This morning I walked through the cemetery near Point Pinos (with again herd of Black-tailed deer). In a quiet bay along the coast a mother baby pair of Sea otters was feeding. It was nice to see the typical behaviour I knew so well from the nature documentaries I had been marvelling at for years. It was great to see now for myself the mother digging up clams and crabs, breaking them to pieces on a stone on her belly and then giving first pieces to her baby before eating herself. This mother was tagged with a red tag in her left flipper and a orange-yellow in her right flipper. Out at sea there was still a very heavy loon passage. A Peregrine flew over looking for some shorebirds. After an unsuccesful hunt it returned to the lighthouse area flying low overhead allowing for crippling full-view looks in my binoculars against the backdrop of a clear blue sky.
After breakfast we first again paid a visit to the Monarch sanctuary seeing our first and only flock of Golden-crowned sparrows. Compared to our previous visit, the Monarchs had now switched to the other side of the trees, where most of the sun was now.
Afterwards we drove into the Carmel Valley to get a flavour of inland Monterey county. And we would not be disappointed...
On our map the Santa Lucia Preserve looked interesting, but it turned out to be a private reserve so we could not proceed on the Ranco San Carlos road. However, in the visitor center they pointed out to us that the Robinson Canyon road was open to public. We travelled through a small redwood stand in the canyon bottom to climb further over dry hills with magnificent oak trees. The upper canyon looked pretty attractive maybe even for a Cougar, so we decided we would return at sunset. Birdwise it was pretty quiet and several stops produced not much more than White-throated swifts and a California sister.
We had lunch at the Garland Ranch SP where California towhees showed themselves. Due to time constraints we did not really walk further into the park, so we had to do it with one (blue) damselfly spec. and a Lorquin's admiral/California sister.
Behind the Carmel valley town the road became smaller and quieter and the landscape very scenic. The oak savannah very much reminded us of the dehesas, the sparse cork oak forests in central Spain which also have their very distinctive avifauna.
The first reward was a Bobcat sleeping under a majestic oak. Soon after we had stopped the Bobcat rose up to go hunting in the meadow up to 3 meters from our car, allowing for gorgeous looks.
A bit further down the road we saw the elegant Yellow-billed magpie, sounding more like a Myna than a Magpie. At the same spot we also saw a Nuttall's woodpecker and a Merlin was perched in a tree. Wild Turkeys were foraging in a quiet valley. We also drove a short time on the sideroad towards China camp but we didn't go very far. There were plenty of the -ever noisy and conspicuous- Acorn woodpeckers, a Hairy woodpecker and several Northern flickers.
Just before sunset we got back to Robinson canyon road to enjoy the ever swelling concert of crickets joined after sunset by a Great horned owl. The crickets really made it feel like summer in the Mediterranean. What a beautiful day!
Wednesday 14 November: to Three Rivers (Sequoia NP)
As we had to leave from Monterey this morning it was the last chance to connect with albatrosses so I set out for some seawatching. No albatrosses, but a tremendous loon passage (although not yet overhead) and the only Ancient auklet I saw in Monterey were really worthwhile. The Sea otters again put in a beautiful show and on the golf course a flock of some 5 Western bluebirds was present. I also got beautiful looks at the only 8 Cedar waxwings of the trip. We also saw 2 Cassin's vireos in an oak tree off Lighthouse avenue.
Leaving from Monterey we first passed through beautiful oak forests (with a flyover Golden eagle at the Tejon pass) before descending in the Central valley. Here a lot of wintering raptors were present: Red-tailed hawks, Northern harriers, American kestrels. Along the road we saw 2 dead Barn owls.
We had lunch on the Lake Kaweah parking lot in the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills. A Golden eagle flew over and a flock of Western bluebirds and House finches were present. Along the lake we saw a Great white egret and a Belted kingfisher. Most suprising were the butterflies nectaring on the Lantanas on the parking lot: several species of Skipper, 2 Common buckeyes and several Painted ladies.
After our arrival in Three rivers we took the road towards Mineral king. Along the first stretch we saw California quails, a Black bear on the opposite hillside and several Sierra newt crossing the road.
Thursday 15 November: Three Rivers
An early morning walk along the Kaweah river in Three rivers produced: several Dippers, Purple finches and American goldfinches.
Today we visited the impressive sequoia groves of Sequoia en King's Canyon NP: Round meadow, Giant forest and Grant grove.
The climb through the foothills was beautiful and yielded several California sisters, a Black-tailed deer and our lifer Oak titmouse right at the visitor center.
The sequoia groves were awesome with the reddish bark of these giants nicely lit up by the sun. Birds were heard more often than seen. Seeing a small Red-breasted nuthatch high up in such a tree made you realize how tall these trees really are: it looked like a tiny dot. We also saw a Brown creeper, but the best bird in the best tree for the day was a White-headed woodpecker appearing on one of the top branches of the "Oregon" tree in Grant grove.
On the way back home especially the foothills seemed to be alive with wildlife again: 2 Grey foxes quickly crossed the road and a Western screech owl seemed to be hunting insects from the road allowing excellent looks for several minutes when perched in our headlights on a roadside branch.
Friday 16 November: to Palmdale
A last morning walk along the Kaweah river was especially good duckwise: Goosanders, a female Hooded merganser and a male Wood duck were the only sightings of these species during the trip. Several Western bluebirds were also on the move.
We set off south again beginning our slow return inland towards San Diego. We had luch in a hilly area surrounded by Ground squirrels. All along the road raptors were quite plentiful, especially Red-tailed hawks.
When entering the Antilope valley we were struck by the beautiful landscape of Joshua trees. We had not expected we would see them so early on already; in fact we had not expected them at all outside Joshua tree NP. We stayed overnight in Palmdale which was a much bigger and busier desert town than expected. Before sunset we gave the closest Le Conte's trasher spot mentioned in our bird book a shot, but recent developments seemed to have changed the area. The dry river bed between the road and the golf course was not really accessible anymore and all shrubs had been removed. The spot north of the road was also not that easily accessible, so we abandoned our quest.
Saturday 17 November: to Joshua Tree NP
Before driving to Joshua tree NP we decided to explore the farming fields in the Antilope valley. These seemed to be pretty devoid of birds, but while driving east we ended up by mistake on a deadend road in the middle of some nice desert habitat: a Loggerhead shrike and several Sage sparrows -we liked their funny manners of running around tail up-, and some 10 -presumably- California quails. An arid field in the same area yielded tens of Horned larks and House finches. We also saw briefly 1 Mountain bluebird.
We decided to take the route through the Lucerne valley. This happened to be a good choice: the scenery was beautiful and many shrubs were in bloom. We had lunch at a dry river bed buzzing with Variegated meadowhawks, several Painted ladies and a Sulphur spec.
Just after our arrival in Joshua Tree NP we made a short tour at dusk enjoying the beautiful scenery of the north side of the park.
Sunday 18 november: Joshua Tree NP
An early morning walk around the Oasis of Mara yielded 2 Cactus wrens (one even going around with nesting material), 1 Verdin, 2 furtive Gambel's quail, several Phainopepla -a beautiful name for a special looking bird with a pleasant noise-, Northern flickers, a Yellow-rumped warbler and several Mockingbirds.
A short stop at the Twentynine palms Visitor's Center yielded us our -only of the trip- Roadrunner darting across the parking lot never to be seen again and a Stink bug. A bit higher up the road we found a dead snake, probably a Red coachwhip.
Today we headed south in the park and it was nice to see the landscape and flora change from the higher Mojave desert to the lower Colorado desert in the Pinto basin. In many places the desert was full of specialised shrubs, so not at all an empty desert. Birdlife on the other hand was very poor during the warmer hours of the day - we actually saw almost no birds at all today.
It struck us sometimes how quick some people were driving in certain areas of the park.
We first set out on the beautiful Cholla garden trail. A very pleasant surprise here was a Desert wood rat munching from some cactuses before disappearing into a hole underground that was nicely protected with bits and pieces of cactus.
We then began our descent into the Pinto basin discovering a dazzling array of wildflowers along the way thanks to some September rains. The first treat were the blooming Ocotillos which attracted an Anna's hummingbird. Also around were Whites spec., Sulphur spec. and the beautiful Queen.
Further down Sand verbenas were carpeting the desert floor in red, whilst plenty of other flowers were also in full bloom including the peculiar Desert five spot. At the same spot a snake skin hung in a shrub disappearing partly underground. A White-winged dove granted our car a visit. Further down the road we saw more Queens -even mating in midair-, a flowering Apricot mallow, Climbing milkweed, Indigo and a Yucca in full bloom with a Leaf-footed bug on the flowers. We ended our trip in a palm oasis. Returning home and during our after dinner drive in the park we encountered a Coyote, some 5 Jackrabbits and a few Desert wood rats, but overall wildlife was rather thin on the ground.
Monday 19 November: to Brawley
This morning an early trip to the Twentynine palms oasis was very productive. Excellent views were obtained of: a big groups of Gambel's quail foraging right in the open, lots of Phainopepla, Anna's humingbirds fighting around a flowering shrub, Verdin, Black-throated sparrow, Cactus wren, 1 Black-tailed gnatcatcher and a Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Sage sparrows.
My trip was so productive that we all three decided to walk the oasis again after breakfast. Now more people were about and the birds were remarkably more shy, but as added bonus we saw 2 California trashers and a Desert cottontail.
We were disappointed to find no open water in the oasis anymore. The official explanation would have it that changed plate tectonics make less water available at the surface. But we also wondered how much water in recent years would maybe also be drawn from the oasis to sustain the town. We actually saw almost no oasis with open water, so we were wondering what the desert animals who depend on it for water need to do then to find drinking water.
We then drove again through the northern portion of the park enjoying our last views of the Joshua trees. Just before entering Joshua tree town a Gambel's quail crossed the road.
We had lunch at the Big Morongo Preserve which was pretty devoid of birds at the moment of our visit. But a single Monarch was still happily flying around. So we soon went on to that other magic spot, the Salton sea. We did not know what to expect exactly so you can imaging that our first sight of this famed sea was a thrilling experience. It felt also very strange to see this inland sea popping up in the middle of the desert with some fertile plains around it. It immediately became clear to us why the sea is so famous as a birding destination: the birds came thick and fast. By the time we arrived in Brawley we had seen already big flocks of Ibises, Egrets and White pelicans.
As sunset was quickly approaching we soon went out again in search for the wintering Sandhill cranes south of Brawley. In the fields we saw lots of Cattle egrets, flocks of White-faced ibises and lots of Kestrels. We found the ponds of the old duck club along Keystone road (in the northeast corner of Dogwood and Harris roads).
and were really excited to see already 5 Sandhill cranes present with another 5 coming in soon thereafter. Could we know that this was just the beginning of the show? During the next 40 minutes and even continuing somewhat after sunset altogether at least 130 Sandhill cranes (including a few juveniles) would fly in from all directions, resounding their beautiful bugling calls and gracefully landing where the other already were. It was just some of the best the Salton sea could offer us, right at our first evening. It was a very different experience to watch cranes coming to roost while wearing a T-shirt some 30 miles north of the Mexican border compared to here in Europe when we normally watch cranes when temperatures are around freezing. The athmosphere was not only made by the cranes, also the sheer numbers of other species joining the roast made up for quite a spectacle: the flocks of Ibises seemed endless, and huge flocks of Pintail, Shoveler and Green-winged teal were present already as well as American avocets and Mexican stilts. From time to time a Northern harrier would stir things up trying to catch a meal. If you add to this the beautiful sunset colours against a dramatic backdrop of the mountains surrounding this wide rift valley, you can be sure we enjoyed our first experience of what the sea could offer to the fullest.
Tuesday 20 november: from the Salton sea to Anza Borrego
An early morning walk to Cattle call park was yet another amazing experience. The rodeo grounds looked a bit like a sports arena, but then surrounded by nice desert scrub. I wasn't alone there. This is something that struck me during the trip. Quite a lot of you are early risers. If I would go for a morning walk here in Belgium at 6 am I would be completely alone, but here I encountered during my trips quite some people walking, jogging, walking their dog or already golfing at 7am. The friendliness of people also struck us. Birding also seemed to be much more accepted than in Europe. Quite a lot of people knew that I was looking for birds when they saw me and they enquired what I had seen already or told me where I could see some quail. A very enjoyable experience so far from home.
The birding was very good: I obtained excellent views of Gila woodpeckers working their way in the palm trees. I also saw a Verdin, both Black-tailed and Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Abert's towhees with their distinctive facial mask, a Cactus wren looking for nesting material, furtive Gambel's quail, White-winged dove among the more common Eurasian collared doves, a pair of Common ground-doves and in the middle of the field a Western meadow lark brought its clear song. Also very close-up views were obtained of a Kestrel and a Red-tailed hawk. Quite amazing!
Before visiting the Sea itself we went to a field at the corner of Hastain and Pickett roads where Mountain plovers had been signalled. On our first approach we saw our hopes dashed as a tractor was working the field. But no, soon 1, then another and then much more Mountain plovers popped up from between the clumps of ground and we obtained excellent views. Also present were a lot of American pipits and Horned larks and several Killdeer. The alfalfa field opposite had foraging Cattle egrets close by and hundreds of Sulphurs were flying around. A blooming Tamarisk along a canal yielded close-up views of these Sulphurs as well as an exquisite Western tailed blue and several Skippers. We slowly made our way to the Sea passing Finney lake where we flushed a Green heron. We had no luck at the site of the former pig farm in Calipatria.
At the Visitor Center thousands of Snow and Ross' geese were present providing quite a spectacle every time they flew up: it really was snowing geese then!
A walk towards the shore of the sea yielded: a White-tailed kite, a Loggerhead shrike, Gambel's quails running along their beaten paths, a Verdin and several Black-tailed gnatcatchers. The view over the limpid sea surface gave us a somewhat unearthy feeling. Caspian terns and Brown pelicans were diving for food and an Avocet was feeding along the shore. Back at the visitor center the lady there was so friendly to put out extra grains for the birds allowing us close-up looks of several Abert's towhees, Gambel's quail and Common ground dove until 2 Cooper's hawks flew in flusing everything. 1 Monarch and several Painted ladies were also around, but the overcast sky meant we would see no dragonflies that day.
All too soon our Salton sea fairy tale was drawing to an end. I know trying to bird the sea in a bit less than a day is not doing this great place justice, but it was enough to get a feel for the tremendous birding potential of this site.
Along the road to Obsidian butte we looked for Burrowing owls, but found none. We did not have enough time anymore to sort through all the gulls. The last stop before heading to Borrego Springs was at Wister Unit 1. Huge geese flocks were forgaging very close to the road here, but along the short walk through the reeds we didn't hear a single rail. One hide had reeds directly in front of it and the other one looked so exposed that it was hard to imagine it as a good viewing place for rails.
Still exhilarated from all the birds we had seen so well we had to leave for the Anza-Borrego desert. On the way a big black thing crossed the road, maybe a Tarantula, but we unfortunately couldn't stop there.
Wednesday 21 November: Anza Borrego
What better than sunrise in the Borrego sink? So I woke up at dawn to find myself in a beautiful desert plain with the surrounding mountains slowly getting a pinkish blush whilst the sun rose. I walked along Christmas circle to the entrance of the Roadrunner golf course. Best birds were for me 2 Ladder-backed woodpeckers. At the golf course some puddles had formed after they had watered the flowers and these attracted a lot of wintering passerines: 1 Lincoln's sparrow, Lesser goldfinches, Lark sparrows, 2 Western bluebirds, Anna's hummingbirds. It was also very strange to see a Great white egret flying in the middle of the desert as well as a Northern harrier, attracted by the water and the greens on the golf courses.
At the Anza Borrego Visitor Center a nice mix of desert specialties was present: Verdin, Costa's hummingbird, California quail, 1 Black-throated sparrow. In the small pool they had some Desert pupfish and butterflies were also around: several Painted ladies and 2 Western Pygmy blues. Best bird was a Chestnut-sided warbler feeding along the trail.
A walk at Yaqui well was not as productive as hoped for and we only found some wet mud, not a real well. Most striking were the good numbers of Phainopeplas in the mistletoe-covered trees.
One of the most scenic spots we visited was the Plum canyon. We did not walk all the way in, as we were so entertained by the amazing variety of cactus species that was growing there (Teddybear Cholla, Diamond Cholla, Barrel Cactus, Beavertail cactus and many others), as well as Ocotillos, blooming Chuparosa and Agaves. Only bird seen was an Anna's hummingbird. There must be quite some rodents in the area as we saw a lot of little holes and droppings. It really was the most beautiful natural rock garden we had ever seen.
We wanted to make another attempt for Le Conte's trasher. Unfortunately the site closest to town (near the dump) now had a clear sign saying that it was strictly forbidden to enter that area.
So we decided then to go for a walk in the Borrego Palm Canyon. No Desert bighorn sheep were seen, but the view of the oasis really made one feel like Lawrence of Arabia.
Thursday 22 November: back to San Diego
Last morning, so last chance for an early walk. As soon as I got outside, I flushed a Coyote from behind a nearby bush. I also saw: 1 Jackrabbit, 1 Ladder-backed woodpecker, Black-throated sparrow, 100 Western bluebirds in palms in the center of town (Flying U-street), 1 Mountain bluebird. At the Borrego springs golfcourse 3 American wigeon were present. 5 Canada geese including a smaller one (the reported Aleutian goose) also kept flying around in the Borrego sink for some time. On the way back home the last goodie I flushed was my lifer Brewer's sparrow. Lots of White-winged doves and Red-winged blackbirds were also around both days.
We made a last half-hearted attempt for Le Conte's trasher along Henderson Canyon road, but nothing was seen. We were also a bit worried by all recent developments in the Borrego sink. We hope some of this vital habitat can be saved from development as the rate at which the town seems to be expanding looked worrying.
To wrap up our visit to the Park we visited one last time the Visitor Center area where we had again nice views of a stunning male Costa's hummingbird, a Blacktailed gnatcatcher and 5 Western Pygmy blues.
We left the park along very windy Montezuma grade. It was nice to see the landscape change again. We went south towards Julian. In the vicinity of Mesa Grande we had our best ever encounter with a Golden eagle. It was flying so close to the road that you could see all details very well including the so attractive golden nape. No way you could ever see a Golden eagle that way anywhere in Europe. What made it even more special is that it actually engaged in an aerial ballet (at times more a battle) with a Ferruginous hawk. Really amazing!
The Mesa Grande surroundings held a lot of wintering birds, but no Lewis' woodpeckers. We saw: another or the same Ferrugineous Hawk, 7 Red-tailed hawks, 1 Red-shouldered hawk, 3 Western bluebirds, 2 Lesser goldfinches, 1 Red-breasted sapsucker, 3 Wrentits, 2 Spotted towhees, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, Acorn woodpeckers and Ground squirrels.
At the Santa Ysabel mission we saw a lot of sapsucker drilling holes, but no sapsuckers. To be honest the elms looked in a dreadful state with all their big branches cut off. Maybe Dutch elm disease is also reaching California? 1 immature Golden eagle flew over.
In the Cuyamaca Mountains the sight of all the burnt trees from several years ago was really appalling.
We were back in San Diego in time to catch the sunset at La Jolla. Hundreds of Bonaparte's gulls, 1 Loon and several Sea lions and a Common seal all gave us a nice farewell.
For Thankgiving most restaurants were closed, but we were able to find one nice place that was still open where we could enjoy a Turkey dinner topped with a pumpkin pie.
No more suitable way to end a great trip....
We are still very thrilled by all great experiences we had. We met some lovely friendly people. The birding was tremendous and even though some areas are very urbanized, once outside the cities California is still so beautiful and wild. And even in a city like San Diego there are plenty of good birding spots.
The birding potential of this region -in all seasons I think- is tremendous. There is almost nothing more exhilarating for a birder than waking up in a new region where almost every bird you see is a lifer. We saw a great diversity (194 species in a bit over 2 weeks without doing too much special efforts and also spending quite some time looking at other wildlife; 53 of these were lifers), but above all the quality of so many sightings was just unbelievable for an overseas birder. Many birds were readily approachable and the light was often so soft and nice that colours came out much better. Actually one of the first remarks my father made, when we went out birding back home again in Belgium was: "Ah, here we need a telescope again to see the birds". This makes the point pretty well: back home here it would be impossible for example to see flocks of waders feeding at your feet -they would have long flown already by the time you get out of the car. Even though we have Eared grebes here in Belgium, we never saw them as closely as from the Bolsa Chica boardwalk.
When looking back, November was actually a very good month to bird California. Of course, we missed a lot of typical summer residents, but the numbers of wintering birds were enormous, not alone in the Salton sea area, but also elsewhere the concentrations of wintering raptors and passerines were striking.
Your part of the world is blessed with a particularly pleasant climate. I think we have been very lucky having almost 2 weeks of clear blue skies, but of course this added to the pleasure of travelling. To us it felt like summer back home and the advantage of November was that one could at least visit the deserts without being cooked alive.
If you take the weather into account it seems logical that quite some flowers are still blooming -for us it was an unexpected November bonus. The attracted butterflies and especially your hummingbirds added just that extra exotic touch.
Best sightings ever and highlights are almost too many to sum them all up. It does a lot of great experiences a lot of unjustice to pick a few, but I will still do an effort to make a balanced choice. The experience of seeing wild California condors cruising the Big Sur skies like they did 200 years ago when Lewis and Clark first passed here, was a very strong moment. Even if they are not ABA-countable yet, it was an eagerly anticipated moment of great joy to see these giants soar freely again.
Mammalwise the Bobcat we could quietly observe hunting for more than half an hour within up to 3 meters from our car in the middle of the afternoon was the most astonishing experience. I had read in one report that people had seen a Bobcat sleeping under a tree in the middle of the day. We cruised the beautiful oak savannah of inland Monterey county with this thought in mind, but we never thought it could even get a lot better than that. You can imagine the surge of happiness and satisfaction the moment you spot exactly that under a tree: there he or she was: like a lioness resting in the shades. The moment he/she stood up and started hunting in front of our eyes was just like living a dream.
But the most unexpected present California had for us was waiting in the Pinto basin in Joshua Tree National Park. A very friendly park ranger mentioned to us they had locally experienced a very unusual rainfall in September so the desert was in bloom now. This was the last thing we had expected, but the wildflower display was simply amazing. There is such a great variety with such intense colors growing in the desert that you can't describe in words the beautiful mixture of purplish reds, sunny yellows and a lot of others.
Of all places we visited 2 areas really stood out for their varied birding potential. I will first mention the Monterey area. This was a very pleasant spot to spend five days of our vacation. I can understand why so many people want to live there. The birding was great and varied: from excellent pelagic birding over the rich estuaries to the inland birding, it was a great experience.
The other area that is even more varied is the wider San Diego county area. It is really amazing what variety you can find here: from top-class seawatching in La Jolla, over the excellent migrant trap of Point Loma to the foothills and beautiful deserts of Anza-Borrego. If you also count the Salton sea area which is not that far away, then I found this to be a real birding bonanza with tremendous possibilities in all seasons. It was great to get to know some of you from the very nice and active SD-birds list and I wish your friendly birding community may stay vibrant and active as ever.
Happy birding to you all in 2008!
California 2-24 November 2007 bird list
Aleutian cackling goose
Great blue heron
Little blue heron
Great horned owl
Eurasian collared dove
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