Sunday, February 27, 2011

SoCal (Feb 19-20) - Island Scrub-Jay, Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, LA exotics, alcids +

Feb 19 - On this drizzly morning I took my last shot at Pacific Golden-Plover at Tijuana Slough but struck out for the third time. By this point I had spent about 8 hours in total looking for this species between here and Salton City...time to tip your cap and move on Nick!

Knowing that the next bout of rain would be arriving in LA about mid-afternoon, I made sure to leave San Diego early enough to be in LA by noon. My two targets in the greater Los Angeles area were both established exotics: Spotted Dove and Red-crowned Parrot. Spotted Dove has drastically declined in southern CA, and there are only really a couple reliable locations left. The best spot is Salt Lake Park in Huntington Park. I parked by the ballfield and walked north through the park. After about 10 minutes I saw a pair of Spotted Doves on a powerline above a house across the street. On my way back to the car a third bird was calling from a tree in the park itself.

Spotted Doves

The Spotted Dove was purely a tick-and-run. I didn't take much pleasure in either the setting (crummy neighborhood) or the bird (introduced, and not much to look at). Let me go on record by saying that I do not enjoy Los Angeles and vicinity. Driving through the city and surrounding neighborhoods I kept thinking of that old DCFC song "Why You'd Want to Live Here." Many truths buried in those lyrics!

OK, one exotic down and one to go. Next up was Red-crowned Parrot. I headed to Tournament Park, part of the Caltech campus in Pasadena, to follow-up on a recent eBird report from here. I had my doubts as I pulled into the small parking lot of this suburban park, but as I stepped out of the car I could hear Allen's Hummingbirds displaying - a life bird that I wasn't really expecting until I got to Santa Cruz Island.

I continued along the narrow tree-lined path and glanced up to spot a few still and silent parrots, among them the countable Red-crowned Parrots and a couple Yellow-headed Parrots.

Red-crowned Parrots

Yellow-headed Parrot

There was actually quite a bit of activity in the area and a flock of warblers moved through the trees including one each of BLACK-THROATED GRAY and TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS. A SUMMER TANAGER, presumably a pretty good bird here, was calling loudly. Just as I was leaving, a pair of Band-tailed Pigeons flew into a pine tree in the parking lot. Not bad for a tiny suburban park!

Townsend's Warbler

From Pasadena I drove up to Ventura where I would meet good friends from home, Frank Gallo and Vanessa Mickan, who were also birding SoCal. I arrived late in the evening and we birded Ventura Harbor at dusk where we had a first-cycle GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL, a drake GREATER SCAUP, and a few SURFBIRDS on the jetties. Afterwards we thoroughly enjoyed dinner & drinks as the rain poured down.

Feb 20 - Temps really dropped overnight, even on the coast, which was made very apparent by the frozen water droplets on my rental car at dawn! I soon got over the flashbacks of New England weather and headed to Ventura Harbor to catch a boat to Santa Cruz Island, the home of the Island Scrub-Jay.

The harbor itself held many Western and a few Clark's Grebes. The ride out was choppy and not very birdy.

Clark's Grebe (left) and Western Grebe

approach to Santa Cruz Island

I got off at Prisoner's Harbor and started on the guided tour to the best scrub-jay locations. After a bit of a wait we were able to locate a few ISLAND SCRUB-JAYS. The jays weren't terribly cooperative but we all got our looks.

Island Scrub-Jay

scrub-jay habitat

After catching up with the jays I broke off from the group and saw a few of the islands' other endemic birds including subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler, Bewick's Wren and Song Sparrow. I pished up a "THICK-BILLED" FOX SPARROW, not a bird I was counting on seeing this trip. Allen's and Anna's Hummingbirds were zipping around.

Allen's Hummingbird

The boat ride back was calmer, with the sun at our backs, making alcids much more visible. We had double-digit totals of CASSIN'S AUKLET, RHINOCEROS AUKLETS, and COMMON MURRES. Interestingly, all of the murres were in basic plumage; at this time of year on the east coast, most Common Murres are in alternate plumage, just like this bird in Connecticut a couple weeks ago. I discussed this with Frank, who noted the same thing when he and Vanessa took the same trip a few days prior.

After the boat returned I drove back down to San Diego for my flight home early the next morning.

More posts to come on this highly successful trip.

- NB

SoCal (Feb 18) - Le Conte's Thrasher, White-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Quail +

Feb 18 - After pulling out the books and figuring out the weather forecast, I found myself immediately east of Borrego Springs at dawn. [There will be a separate upcoming post on how my iPhone was instrumental in planning my final 3 days of birding in CA, and seeing more birds because of it.]

sunrise in the Anza-Borrego Desert

The target bird here was Le Conte's Thrasher, my most highly sought-after bird of the trip. The thrashers have already begun their breeding cycle by mid-February, so the likelihood of a male singing or birds nest-building is high and increases one's chance of a sighting.

Immediately apparent were several SAGE THRASHERS and "Interior" SAGE SPARROWS. Sometime around sunrise I heard a couple short runs of thrasher song to the north of my car.

"Interior" Sage Sparrow

Sage Thrasher

After a few moments a distant LE CONTE'S THRASHER appeared at the top of a shrub before diving back down out of sight.

first glimpse at Le Conte's Thrasher

I slowly approached the bird's location with scope in hand and was able to get some great looks when the bird popped up again. I grabbed a few partly-obscured digiscoped shots of this sand-colored desert scarcity, which came out OK considering the lack of sun (thank you Kowa scope and your 88mm objective lens).

Le Conte's Thrasher

I observed the thrasher for a while more from this spot, watching it run from bush to bush until finally out of sight.

From here I departed the Anza-Borrego Desert for the mountain town of Idyllwild, nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains at more than 5,000 feet in elevation, in search of White-headed Woodpecker.

the approach to the San Jacintos

I started at the Idyllwild Nature Center, which has a network of trails through pine and oak woodland with a reputation for holding White-headed WP. Before trying the trails I gave the parking lot vicinity a good search but came up empty. I started the long Perimeter loop trail that climbed in elevation before dropping down to an adjacent campground. Along the way I ran into some nice mountain birds such as Band-tailed Pigeons, Mountain Chickadees, Oak Titmice, Townsend's Solitaire, and Pine Siskins.

Band-tailed Pigeon

After a couple hours of hiking there was still no sign of any WHWO until I reached the campground. I decided to temporarily leave the trail to walk the campground's paved road for a little while. Right along the road a female WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER appeared, soon joined by a calling male.

male White-headed Woodpecker

female White-headed Woodpecker

I found it a bit funny that I had just spent a bunch of time and effort working up a sweat on a steep trail only to find the birds at a spot I could have driven to! For anyone who is interested, find your way to the Idyllwild County Park Campground entrance and drive on the main paved road. You will come to a check-in station in the road that has an American flag waving over it. Immediately past this station you'll see a parking lot on your left. The woodpeckers were in the tall pines across the road from the parking lot.

On the trail back up to the Nature Center I flushed a MOUNTAIN QUAIL which triggered a nearby male to give a few loud crows.

At this point around 3pm I had seen all my targets for the day and had to decide whether I should continue to LA as planned or run back to San Diego for an evening try at the Pacific Golden-Plover there. I decided on the latter and headed back southwest. I arrived back at Tijuana Slough with about 45 minutes of light left. Fortunately, the rain that had begun there earlier in the afternoon had stopped just as I arrived. Unfortunately, the plover was again elusive. A singing "Belding's" Savannah Sparrow and a few calling "Light-footed" Clapper Rails were the only highlights.

- NB

SoCal (Feb 17) - Bell's Sage Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow, gulls

Feb 17 - I set out of San Diego pre-dawn and headed west towards the Salton Sea. En route I stopped at an area of sagebrush in Pine Valley for "Bell's" Sage Sparrows. This location was very birdy with many common species seen. In my hour there I located one singing male "Bell's" Sage Sparrow and a roving flock of 3 or 4 more.

"Bell's" Sage Sparrows

sage habitat in Pine Valley, CA

After this successful stop I continued onto the Salton Sea for some gulling at Red Hill. While I didn't have any particular target gull species here, I couldn't in good conscience visit the Salton Sea without spending a few hours sorting through gulls. An interesting mix of gulls were present including an adult THAYER'S GULL and a couple first-cycle GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS. A few hybrid-type birds were also present, which I'll explore in a later post. I ran out of time just as I was really putting a dent in the of these days I'll have to spend a full two or three days gulling the Sea.

adult Thayer's Gull

A quick visit to the nearby Sonny Bono NWR Headquarters turned up Snow & Ross's Geese, an alternate adult HEERMANN'S GULL (uncommon at the SS), Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Abert's Towhee, and a surprise (at least to me) BELL'S VIREO.

From here I drove northwest to Johnson's Landing in Salton City for two target birds: "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow and Pacific Golden-Plover. I found the sparrows soon after arriving at the jetties and studied them for a few minutes before looking closely for the plover. This PGPL had been wintering here and was supposed to be extremely reliable. After scouring the shoreline to the north and south of the jetties I started to get a bit nervous. I walked wayyy up and down the shore in both directions in search of the little bugger but was unable to locate it. After 3 hours of searching I finally ran out of light and retreated to the JL bar for a burger and beers.

"Large-billed" Savannah Sparrows

Now it was decision time. The weather was about to take a turn for the worse and I had to alter my plans.

moonrise and sunset at Johnson's Landing, Salton City, CA

- Nick