California (December 1996)

This is a report of a birding trip to California that covered 12/7/96 through 12/22/96. I was only able to get out for part of the first week because I was on business at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). Beginning on 12/14, however, I birded from sunrise to sunset everyday. The trip included stops in the Laguna Mountains (LM), Anza-Borrega State Park (AB), the Salton Sea (SS), the San Diego area (SD), Inyo County along Route 395 (IC), Death Valley (DV), the Toiyabe Forest (TF), Point Reyes (PR), Yosemite (YS), and Santa Barbara County (SB). I didn’t have sufficient time to thoroughly bird any of these areas, especially since I spent 3 days in IC (a great area that apparently is not covered in birding guides). This trip was full of possibilities for me because I just started birding this year and my only previous birding in California was at SS and SD in June. A list of the 190 species I saw is at the end. Finding this many birds took so much work that I don’t see how anyone can see 200 species in a single day! My North America list surpassed 400 species on this trip. Below is a log of some of the highlights and a list. The theme of this trip was get an enticing but poor look at a desperately wanted bird, fret over it for a while, and then finally get a great look. This happened with GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, SAGE SPARROW, RED CROSSBILL, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD, PINYON JAY, PRAIRIE FALCON, ROSS’ GOOSE, CANYON WREN, and AMERICAN DIPPER.

LM (12/7 am and early pm): I only saw the birds one would expect to see. However, STELLER’S JAY, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, PYGMY NUTHATCH, ACORN WOODPECKER, OAK TITMOUSE, and GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW were exciting new birds for me. I was also surprised to see more than 10 FOX SPARROWS, which are hard to find in the East. I got a great close-up view of a WHITE-TAILED KITE perched on a wire near Lake Cuyamaca.

AB (12/7 late pm): I didn’t get to see much because I got lost trying to find Yaqui Well. A map led me to believe that the well is located at the end of the dirt road through the campground. I walked 2 to 3 miles and kept hoping I would come to the well. It was getting dark by the time a nice couple in a 4-wheel drive came along and drove me back to the well. This stop was not a total loss (although it could have been a disaster in the middle of summer) because I saw a few nice birds along the road, including BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER, PHAINOPEPLA, VERDIN, and LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE.

SD (12/8): I saw several nice birds at La Jolla Cove thanks to Elwood Root, who taught me how to identify some of the West Coast gulls and gave me pointers on identifying pelagics (which I used on 12/13). I saw HEERMAN’S and WESTERN GULLS, MARBLED GODWIT, and BLACK TURNSTONE. I saw WESTERN GREBE and SAY’S PHOEBE near the hang-glider port in La Jolla.

SD (12/9 pm): I drove up to Carlsbad to look for the VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD that had been visiting a feeder for several weeks, but found out that I was a few days too late. I found an EARED GREBE in the Buena Vista Lagoon near Oceanside. At Point Loma, I found a WANDERING TATTLER on the rocks and a few PELAGIC CORMORANT’S among the BRANDT’S CORMORANTS on a cliff.

LM (12/10 early am): There was much less activity than on 12/7 apparently due to cold, fog, and wind. However, the trip became worthwhile when I stopped along a farm road on the way back to SD and saw my first LARK SPARROWS.

SB (12/11 pm): After a morning meeting in LA, I drove over to look for the ZONE-TAILED HAWK in Goleta. Although I was not successful, I saw my first YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER and TRICOLORED BLACKBIRD. I then drove to El Capitan State Park and found the PAINTED REDSTART (after an hour of standing in the rain listening for its call) and also saw BAND-TAILED PIGEON and TOWNSEND’S WARBLER.

SS (12/12): I saw ALBERT’S TOWHEE, GAMBEL’S QUAIL, CACTUS WREN, GILA WOODPECKER, and VERDIN in the date palm grove in Brawley. I was able to vaguely note the differences between SNOW GOOSE and ROSS’ GOOSE at Unit 1 of SS. I saw a CLARK’S GREBE at Finney Lake. I searched unsuccessfully for a FERRUGINOUS HAWK that had been reported in the area.

SD (12/13): I spent the day out on FLIP (FLoating Instrument Platform), which is a unique SIO vessel. Tanks in the aft end of this 350’ boat are flooded so that the boat becomes vertically oriented. Some of the walls become floors and vice versa. Certain devices such as beds and the kitchen stove are on hinges so they remain oriented properly. After flipping, this platform is stable enough to use a spotting scope. We flipped about 8 miles off Point Loma. I saw many BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATERS and one SOOTY SHEARWATER. Just before we flipped, a sparrow flew out from the lower deck. It later appeared near the aft (hopping around looking for food) as we began to flip. As the aft began to sink, the poor bird flew out over the water and then quickly doubled back. I didn’t see it again, but I hope it survived.

IC (12/14): I stopped along 395 and located several SAGE SPARROWS but was never able to get a good look at one. I drove on to Aspendell to see the GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES that the Wallaces feed during the winter. (Drive about 20 miles west of Bishop on 168; turn right on Cardinal Drive in Aspendell; park near Iris Drive; walk down the hill to 140 Iris Drive). The feeders are conveniently located in the front yard. These beautiful birds fly back and forth between the feeders and a bare tree across the street. If you stand in the middle of the street, the large flock will fly right past you! I was also thrilled to see CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS and CASSIN’S FINCHES at the feeders. On the way down the mountain (about 1/2 mile from Aspendell), I saw a GOLDEN EAGLE soaring above a ridge. I saw two of them in the same place when I returned a few days later. I met John Finkbeiner and Ed Clark in Aspendell. Ed told me about Lewis’ Woodpeckers at DV. John gave me some tips on a NORTHERN SHRIKE, had me over to his house to look for PINE SISKINS at his feeder (they didn’t show up), and introduced me to Tom Heindel (who is a real expert on IC birding). I followed John’s directions and found two FERRUGINOUS HAWKS. I also drove into the White Mountains (168 east from Big Pine) and saw an all-blue bird that must have been a PINYON JAY fly right in front of the car, but it disappeared into the trees before I could be sure.

DV (12/15): Based on Ed’s leads, I visited the date palm grove near Furnace Creek. This oasis is excellent for birding. The first bird I saw (other than the abundant COMMON RAVENS) was a VARIED THRUSH. I then came across several LEWIS’ WOODPECKERS, which get my vote for the most impressive member of their clan. I later came across a PRAIRIE FALCON and an AMERICAN PIPIT (a common bird that had persistently eluded me!). On the golf course nearby, I got a close look at a ROSS’ GOOSE that was conveniently standing next to a SNOW GOOSE and was able to easily note the differences in the bills and size. I saw a COMMON SNIPE in one of the sewage ponds, which was not a new bird for me but seemed to be an odd bird for DV! I stopped for a snack, which I shared with the tame COMMON RAVENS. This was my first upclose (within inches) view of these usually wary birds. It was definitely a highlight. I spent the rest of the day in Mosaic Canyon and up the mountains unsuccessfully looking for ROCK WREN, PINYON JAY, and TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE. This part of the day was not a complete loss, however, because I came across a small flock of SAGE SPARROWS that gave me an excellent look.

IC (12/16): I followed up on great leads from Tom. I began the day at Pleasant Valley Dam, which is great for CANYON and ROCK WREN. I walked up the road just past the dam and heard what had to be a CANYON WREN, got a poor glimpse of it, and it flew across the reservoir. My frustrations subsided an hour later when I got lucky a spotted another CANYON WREN and then saw two more of them having a spat. Seeing the short winter day passing, I departed without locating a much-desired ROCK WREN. I searched without success for PINE SISKINS, TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE, and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. On the way back from one of these locations (a few miles west of Bishop on 168), I caught a glimpse of what must have been an AMERICAN DIPPER flying across the road. I jumped out of the car and saw the bird disappear into the brush before I could make a positive ID. Once again, the theme of the trip reared its head. I made a trip into the White Mountains to the 6000’ marker on 168 (east of Big Pine). Tom said that the small spring at this location attracts CHUKAR. There were no CHUKAR but a flock of PINYON JAYS, which were at or near the top of my most-desired list, showed up shortly after I did! I then visited the wildlife viewing area about 10 miles south of Big Pine a saw 3 GOLDEN EAGLES. It was only at this point that I figured out that the bird I had seen soaring above the ridge on 12/14 was a GOLDEN EAGLE. I continued on to locations east Independence and west of Lone Pine looking for LE CONTE’S THRASHER and WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER but had no luck. On the way back to Bishop, I stopped in Independence and located the immature NORTHERN SHRIKE that John had told me about. I called Tom and reported that I had gone a mediocre 4 for 11 that day and he told me about some MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS he had located.

IC (12/17): Although I needed to get moving, I couldn’t pull myself away from IC just yet. I spent most of the morning visiting bridges over the creeks and pines in Big Pine and Bishop and finally located an AMERICAN DIPPER near Shepard Street in Bishop. This bird put on an incredible show as it repeatedly flew out from a rock, dipped below the water, occasionally popped up for air, walked along the bottom, and then comically hopped (in a rushing creek) over to a rock to eat its find! I then proceeded back to Pleasant Valley Dam determined to spend the rest of the day there if necessary to find a ROCK WREN. After a short walk up to the dam I found two ROCK WRENS and a CANYON WREN calling right out in the open sitting on the fence. I went to look for the BLUEBIRDS where Tom had seen them the day before but only found a MERLIN and some FERRUGINOUS HAWKS. I made another trip up to Aspendell to see the FINCHES and NUTCRACKER and this time saw 2 GOLDEN EAGLES flying along the ridge. I spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully looking for the other targets from previous days.

TF to PR (12/18 am): I spent 5 hours looking for BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKERS using instructions from Martin Meyers that Phil Davis posted. Since the road up the mountain was closed, I walked up and saw large numbers of FLICKERS, several HAIRY and DOWNY WOODPECKERS, and a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER. When I reached the visitor’s information area at the crest, I heard a strange-sounding woodpecker. After twice walking around the tree where the sound seemed to be originating, I finally spotted a WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER near the base of the trunk. I drove along the fields north of Davis a saw RING-NECKED PHEASANT and YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE. I made a few stops along Rte. 37 and saw COMMON GOLDENEYE and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL.

PR (12/19): I spent the early morning near the visitor’s center. Before dawn, I heard GREAT HORNED and BARN OWLS. Shortly after dawn, I saw several VARIED THRUSHES, a large number of TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS, and some CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES. After the visitor’s center opened, I got some very useful tips from Arthur and Bob. I first visited the far end of Abbott’s Lagoon, where I saw SNOWY PLOVER and WESTERN SANDPIPER. I then visited various points at the south end of PR and found MEW GULLS and unsuccessfully searched for SORA, VIRGINIA RAIL, and BLACK OYSTERCATCHER. As sunset rapidly approached, I made a mad dash for Millerton Point to look for the SHORT-EARED OWL. I arrived just as the light was beginning to fade, walked up the hill, and there it was not more than 50 feet away! I watched it glide over the field for about 20 minutes. Every so often it would pounce on something, but I couldn’t tell if it was ever successful. A NORTHERN HARRIER was also hunting, and the two birds had several close encounters with no incidents. One day was far too little to spend at PR, but I had to start moving back toward LA because my time was running low.

YS to SB (12/20): YS was nearly a complete bust as far as birding goes. However, it was worth the stop because I had never before seen the spectacular scenery. During a two hour walk as I waited for the visitor’s center to open, I saw only 7 species. There was one highlight: I shared my breakfast (a bag of trail mix) with a bunch of STELLER’S JAYS, which are relatively tame at YS. This was my first up-close view of these wary birds. Unfortunately, there were no birding experts available that morning. I took Rte. 49 south from Mariposa in hopes of finding bluebirds. I stopped at several side roads and finally located a WESTERN BLUEBIRD. At the same location, I also got my first good look at a GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW.

SB (12/21): I spent the early part of the morning at the lake near Stow House in Goleta. I finally located some PINE SISKINS (which had eluded me in IC) in a flock of AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES. I also had the good fortune to run into Jim Hodgson, who gave me some excellent tips. Jim and I walked around the lake unsuccessfully searching for SORA and VIRGINIA RAIL, which he regularly sees in the lake. Between 10 am and 1 pm, I staked out the corner of Fairview and Cuesta Verde in hopes of spotting the ZONE-TAILED HAWK. I had no such luck, but I was fortunate to meet Jim Greaves, who gave me some tips and a map of the county. I spent the afternoon looking for RED CROSSBILLS (which had been seen in various clumps of pine trees throughout Goleta) and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS (along Armour Ranch Rd, which is over the San Marcos Pass and past Lake Cachuma). I had no luck finding these birds (which were near the top of my wish list) but did find lots of RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES in the pines and a nice flock of LARK SPARROWS (I got to hear their interesting song for the first time) beyond Armour Ranch Rd. I also saw 2 flocks of YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES, which were at the southernmost limit of their usual range.

SB (12/22): It was depressing to wake up on the last day of the trip to a pouring rain. I desperately wanted the BLUEBIRD and CROSSBILL, but didn’t hold out much hope. I had planned to start the day at the lake again but decided to drive over the San Marcos Pass since it was raining so hard. My hopes improved slightly when the rain started to subside on the other side of the mountains. I drove to the north part of Armour Ranch Rd. and noticed a bird sitting on the wire. Looking through the windshield, I decided the bird might be a female MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. I quickly jumped out of the car to get a better look, but the bird had flown off. My distress didn’t last long because I looked over and saw a flock of them coming right toward me! They landed on the fence and wires and then a beautiful male came within 10 feet of me to get some grit from the road. At this point, the sun began to break through the clouds over the mountains and it seemed like a miracle! I then drove up to La Cumbre peak to look for the TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE that had been spotted there a few weeks earlier. I had no luck but did find another VARIED THRUSH on the way up. I then made my third and final stake-out for the ZONE-TAILED HAWK, which proved to be unsuccessful. Hugh Ranson (who originally discovered this wayward bird a few years ago during its first visit to SB when it was a juvenile) was also at the stake-out. He gave me a tip on CROSSBILLS at a small park above Mission Ridge Rd. in Santa Barbara. After waiting unsuccessfully for the HAWK, I followed Ron to a different location for CROSSBILLS and went back to check the other locations with no luck. I then decided to go back and wait a bit longer for the hawk. To my amazement, a small flock of birds buzzed me, making a jip-jip-jip call. One of them that came within arms reach was clearly a red bird with dark wings. It HAD to be a RED CROSSBILL, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure. Once again, the theme of the trip had reared its head. I was half elated and half perplexed as I headed over to check the location that Hugh had suggested. When I arrived and didn’t see anything, I figured I wouldn’t be getting a good look at a CROSSBILL on this trip. But then a slight movement drew my attention to the top of one of the trees. There it was! A lone male RED CROSSBILL. It sat there next to a pine cone very cooperatively as I got my scope on it for a really good look. I spent the remainder of the afternoon at the beach near Santa Barbara St. looking for THAYER’S GULLS. I understand that they are very difficult to tell from Herring Gulls. However, I found an immature with aluminum bands on each leg that looked just like the immature 1st year in Stoke’s Field Guide. It had the white edges around the tail feathers as in the photo. It also had a solid black bill.

Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, *Eared Grebe, *Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, *Sooty Shearwater, *Black-vented Shearwater, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, *Brandt’s Cormorant, *Pelagic Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Turkey Vulture, Tundra Swan, Snow Goose, *Ross’ Goose, Canada Goose, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Surf Scoter, *Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, *Ferruginous Hawk, *Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, *Prairie Falcon, *Ring-necked Pheasant, Gambel’s Quail, California Quail, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, *Snowy Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, *Wandering Tattler, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, *Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, *Black Turnstone, Sanderling, *Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, *Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Snipe, Bonaparte’s Gull, *Heermann’s Gull, *Mew Gull, Ring-billed Gull, California Gull, Herring Gull, *Thayer’s Gull, *Western Gull, *Glaucous-winged Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Black Skimmer, Rock Dove, *Band-tailed Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Greater Roadrunner, *Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Burrowing Owl, *Short-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, *Lewis’ Woodpecker, *Acorn Woodpecker, Gila Woodpecker, *Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, *Red-breasted Sapsucker, Nuttal’s Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, *White-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (red-shafted race), Black Phoebe, *Say’s Phoebe, *Northern Shrike, Loggerhead Shrike, *Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, *Pinyon Jay, *Clark’s Nutcracker, Black-billed Magpie, *Yellow-billed Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, *Mountain Chickadee, *Chestnut-backed Chickadee, *Oak Titmouse, Verdin, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, *Pygmy Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Cactus Wren, *Rock Wren, *Canyon Wren, Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, Winter Wren, *American Dipper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, *Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Gnatcatcher, *Western Bluebird, *Mountain Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, *Varied Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, California Thrasher, *American Pipit, Cedar Waxwing, Phainopepla, European Starling, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, *Townsend’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, *Painted Redstart, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, *Albert’s Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, *Lark Sparrow, *Sage Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, *Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (slate-colored, pink-sided, and Oregon races), Red-winged Blackbird, *Tricolored Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, *Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Purple Finch, *Cassin’s Finch, House Finch, *Red Crossbill, *Pine Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow