California (March 1997)

I managed to get in some birding on a recent business trip to California. I had little luck looking for targets but had a few nice surprises. I saw 110 species, which isn’t bad for a short, laid-back trip in late winter.

I spent March 1 in the Santa Barbara area. I started at Stow Lake in Goleta looking for the rails that I had missed on a previous trip but had no luck. I then stopped by the willows at the end of Turnpike St. and saw LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCH along with the other two goldfinch species. I visited the campus of UCSB to look for GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE but had no luck. I visited Devereaux Slough and saw the EURASIAN WIGEON. I visited Lake Cachuma to look for the reported BARROW’S GOLDENEYE but had no luck. I also visited the fields along Armour Ranch Rd. to look for MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS that I had seen there in December, but they were not around. I also visited pine groves in Goleta that had been visited by RED CROSSBILLS but only saw MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES (I suspect the crossbills were there but hidden in the treetops). I also kept my eyes open for the ZONE-TAILED HAWK but had no such luck with this bird that I had repeatedly missed in December. At the end of the day, I visited the Santa Barbara St. outfall to look for the BLACK-HEADED GULL but only saw the BONAPARTE’S GULLS that it hangs out with.

I began March 2 at Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station. I tried to get on the base, but the guard said I would have to come back during the week. I drove on to Huntington Beach to look for the STREAK-BACKED ORIOLE. I met up with John McKeever, who told me where to look for the oriole and pointed out an ALLEN’S HUMMINGBIRD (an unexpected surprise) and a SPOTTED DOVE (which I had seen in Hawaii). Since John hadn’t seen the oriole in over a week (I later learned that it was actually still around but had become harder to see), I decided to move on after a few hours and stopped at the location in Palmdale where LECONTE’S THRASHERS had been seen. I searched unsuccessfully for the thrashers till dark and then drove to Lake Arrowhead to attend a workshop.

I took a short walk early on March 3 before the first meeting and saw a few old friends including STELLER’S JAY, SPOTTED TOWHEE, and MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE. I went for a longer hike the next morning and saw a BALD EAGLE (the first one I’ve seen in the West), WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER, and CANYON WREN.

I began March 5 back in Palmdale because I really wanted the thrasher. I spent three hours walking through the field north of the golf course, which a large population of jack rabbits and cottontails has filled with Cocoa Puffs. I came across a favorite Looney Tunes duo in this field. It was my closest ever encounter with a coyote (about 15 ft). The GREATER ROADRUNNER was much more wary, hiding behind the scrub 100 ft away. I spotted what may have been the desired thrashers scurrying across a dirt road 100 yds away, but they quickly disappeared into the scrub. Although I never managed to find the thrashers, which have consistently eluded me, I got a nice consolation prize. Mixed in with a bunch of HORNED LARKS (some of which were singing) was a strange bird with a strong white eyebrow. I could not figure it out from the field guides I was carrying. When I got home, I checked The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (which contains an excellent collection of photos and accounts) and realized that the bird was a LAPLAND LONGSPUR. This was not the first time that this book helped me resolve a mystery. I proceeded to Pt. Mugu and arrived in the middle of the afternoon. I was concerned about getting on the base because I was not able to reach a point-of-contact I had obtained. While standing in line at security, I started getting really worried because it became obvious that security is tight at Pt. Mugu. So I looked over at the photos on the wall and took note of the commanding officer’s name as a possible POC. I told the clerk I was interested in seeing the lagoon. She laughed and said I had to have a POC. When I said I wanted to see the CO, she looked at me in disbelief and said she would have to call the CO and give him my name. She seemed to expect me to back off, but I was determined to see the MASKED BOOBY! After speaking with the CO’s secretary for several tense minutes, she said the Public Affairs Officer was coming out to see me. I got worried. It turned out that the PAO is Cora Fields, a very knowledgeable birder who gave me a great tour of the lagoon, marshes, beach, and one of the hangars! The bad news is that the booby had not been seen in more than a week. The good news is that I got to see several nice birds and some great habitat that, judging by the great collection of birds, is in good hands with the Navy. At the booby’s hangout, I was amazed to see three EURASIAN WIGEON (Cora says there have been as many as four or five of them). In perusing the RBA’s this fall and winter, I only saw reports of one or two of them at any location. I also got a great look at a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER gliding in to the lagoon (I’ve been fortunate to have up-close views of all three scoters this winter). The hangar was the highlight of the trip. I saw my first BARN OWL snoozing up in the rafters. The same hangar also hosts a beautiful GREAT-HORNED OWL. I wonder how they manage to coexist. I hope the BARN OWL doesn’t end up as lunch some day. I spent the last part of the day driving down the coast toward LA looking for a PACIFIC LOON (I’ve never been able to get a definitive look at one) but had no success. On the red-eye flight to DC that night, I got a nice view of Comet Hale-Bopp.

Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Turkey Vulture, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, White-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, American Kestrel, California Quail, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Snowy Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Bonaparte’s Gull, Heerman’s Gull, Mew Gull, Ring-billed Gull, California Gull, Western Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Rock Dove, *Spotted Dove, Mourning Dove, Greater Roadrunner, *Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, *Allen’s Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Cactus Wren, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Bewick’s Wren, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, California Thrasher, European Starling, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Song Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, *Lapland Longspur, Red-winged Blackbird, Tricolored Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, *Lawrence’s Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow