Bird Sightings from California Trip Oct 1999

This is a record of species seen on the California trip of Oct 1999, with the notable exception that "garbage birds" (Starlings, House Sparrows, American Robins, Mourning Doves) are omitted. In common with most of the trips I do, it feature doing bird reserves connected by large segments of driving - there's somewhat of a trip report after the species list, for the curious.

Species Lifers Malibu Lagoon Stunt Canyon San Diego Salton Sea NWR Imperial NWR Central Valley Morro Bay/Los Osos Coast Road and Hills
Pacific Loon Life x        
Common Loon           x  
Eared Grebe USA      x    x  
Pied-billed Grebe   x    x x    
Western Grebe        x x   x  
Clark's Grebe Life x        
Brown Pelican   x   x     x x
Am. White Pelican        x   x   
Brandt's Cormorant       x     x  
Double-crested Cormorant   x    x x x x x
Pelagic Cormorant Life         x  
Great Blue Heron   x    x x x x  
Great Egret   x   x x x x x  
Snowy Egret   x    x    x  
Cattle Egret        x     
Black-crowned Night Heron   x    x x    
White-faced Ibis Life      x     
Canada Goose        x     
Snow Goose        x     
Mallard   x    x x x x  
Gadwall   x    x x x x  
Pintail        x x x   
American Wigeon   x    x     
Green-winged Teal        x x    
Cinnamon Teal Life      x x    
Shoveler   x    x    x  
Lesser Scaup        x     
Bufflehead           x  
Red-breasted Merganser           x  
Ruddy Duck   x    x x x x  
Turkey Vulture        x x x x x
Red-tailed Hawk       x x x x x x
Red-shouldered Hawk     x       x
Sharp-shinned Hawk     x    x x   
White-tailed Kite       x      x
Osprey       x      
Hen Harrier       x x x x   x
American Kestrel   x x x x x x x x
California Quail            x
Gambel's Quail Life      x x    
Sandhill Crane          x   
Virginia Rail   x        
Sora   x     x    
Common Moorhen         x    
American Coot   x    x x x x  
American Black Oystercatcher           x  
Snowy Plover Life x        
Killdeer   x    x x    
Black-bellied Plover   x    x    x  
Ruddy Turnstone   x        
Black Turnstone Life x        
Whimbrel   x        
Long-billed Curlew Life x    x    x  
Marbled Godwit   x    x    x  
Spotted Sandpiper       x x     
Greater Yellowlegs        x     
Dowitcher sp.        x     
Willet   x    x     
Dunlin   x        
Least Sandpiper        x     
Western Sandpiper        x     
American Avocet        x     
Pied Stilt        x     
Western Gull   x   x x x   x x
Herring Gull   x   x x    x  
Ring-billed Gull   x    x    x  
Heermann's Gull   x   x     x  
Bonaparte's Gull        x     
Royal Tern           x  
Caspian Tern        x     
Forster's Tern   x      x   
Mourning Dove   x x x x x x x x
Common Ground Dove        x     
White-throated Swift Life          
Anna's Hummingbird Life x x       x
Nuttall's Woodpecker Life   x       x
Northern Flicker   x x   x x x   x
Acorn Woodpecker Life          x
Gila Woodpecker         x    
Black Phoebe Life x   x x x x x x
Say's Phoebe Life x x x x x   x x
Horned Lark          x   
Barn Swallow         x x   
Tree Swallow   x    x x x   
Loggerhead Shrike   x x   x x    x
Orange-crowned Warbler Life          x
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon)   x x x x   x x x
Townsend's Warbler Life         x  
Common Yellowthroat   x        
Phainopepla         x    
Western Scrub Jay   x x   x x x x x
Yellow-billed Magpie Life          x
Raven     x    x x x x
American Crow   x   x x   x x x
Canyon Wren           x  
Bewick's Wren Life x      x   
Marsh Wren   x        
Ruby-crowned Kinglet   x x   x    x x
Northern Mockingbird   x    x     x
Wrentit Life   x       
Hermit Thrush     x      x  
Western Bluebird           x x
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher        x    x  
Chestnut-backed Chickadee Life         x  
Oak Titmouse Life   x      x x
Verdin Life      x     
Bushtit Life   x x     x x
Western Meadowlark Life x x   x x x x x
Red-winged Blackbird   x    x x x x  
Brewer's Blackbird   x   x x x x x x
Great-tailed Grackle        x x    x
Western Tanager            
Purple Finch            x
House Finch     x x x   x   
Lesser Goldfinch Life        x   x
Spotted Towhee Life x x       
California Towhee   x x x    x x x
Abert's Towhee Life      x x    
Dark-eyed Junco     x       
Chipping Sparrow           x  
White-crowned Sparrow   x x x x x x x x
Song Sparrow   x    x    x  
Totals 28 55 23 22 68 40 34 53 36

Trip Report

My California birding trip was built around an invitation I had from some crystallographers to come and interview for a staff scientist position at UCLA. Although I confirmed my suspicions about LA (it would drive me nuts), it did provide a free flight to the West Coast and the opportunity for birding an area mostly unexplored by me.

So in late October I found myself renting a car at LAX. The Mitsubishi that I ended up driving that week is mostly a tin box with a hamster in it, but on a flat surface it can crowd the speed limit quite satisfactorily.

The entire schedule was built around not wanting to look like at moron during my time at UCLA, whilst travelling improbable distances and birding my ass off. Whether I succeeded in the former is not for me to say, but the rest of the stuff worked out nicely. Trips like this always suffer from my tendency to pack as many sites in as possible (e.g. Stunt Canyon, San Diego and Salton Sea all in one day!) and don't allow me to fully explore these places. I do see an awful lot of birds in the time I spend outside the car.

Oct 19th, late afternoon. Rented the junk car at LAX, battled the traffic on I-405 and Santa Monica Boulevard, and found myself at Malibu Lagoon State Park at 5pm (sunset was at 6pm). I promptly experienced species panic as potential lifers crowded on all sides, and I couldn't decide whether to look in the book or look at more birds first. I had my life Black Phoebe in the parking lot, my second ever Sora next to the parking lot, my pseudo-life Clark's Grebe filling in for my first post-split "Western" Grebe, all within the first 10 minutes or so. The Clark's swam underneath the small wooden bridge I was standing on, whereupon I started to regret not bringing my camera - I had left it at home in lieu of bringing the 'scope. I did have a 28mm lens on my Canon A-1 with me, but short of the Clark's pecking the lens it isn't that useful for wildlife photography. White-crowned Sparrows hopped around on the path (these are quite uncommon in NYC, whereas we are deluged by White-throated Sparrows in fall and winter). Some old familiar birds (American Wigeon, Mallard, American Coot, Gadwall) relieved the onslaught of new species in the lagoon. Marsh Wren gave obligingly good views in the reeds - better views than I had had in years, although it wasn't singing.

Once out on the beach, I was confronted by very tame Whimbrel, my first (and aptly named) Long-billed Curlew, Ruddy Turnstone and a Black Turnstone that I took my time about identifying. The endangered Snowy Plovers ran around close to my feet. There were many Heerman's and Western Gulls on the beach, but I was dissapointed not to find a California Gull - a bird that would elude me on the remainder of the trip. A California Towhee gave me yet another lifer on the way back to the car. I did toy with misidentifying a pair of Greylag Geese as Greater White-fronted Geese, striken as I was by new species fever, but thankfully sanity took hold of me in time.

After a swift cafe mocha at Starbucks across the road, I threaded the rental car up Route 33 (must be spectacular in daylight) through the mountains and reached Bakersfield around 10pm. Rt. 33 is a very slow road indeed, and I probably spent most of the time in 2nd or 3rd gear.

Oct 20th was greeted by a thick layer of haze in the Central Valley, and I was reminded once more what a dismal place it can be - my experience of it has always been from I-5, but closer inspection didn't reveal any hidden beauty. Still, it wasn't hard to pick up Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark, Song Sparrow, White Pelican, Tree and Barn Swallow, Brewer's Blackbird and what may have been a Bewick's Wren. Somewhat unexpectedly, I came across a few Sandhill Cranes flying over one of the fields. Although Brewer's Blackbirds were numberous, there were no Great-tailed Grackles.

Heading south toward LA for an afternoon meeting at UCLA, I stopped at a roadside rest-stop about half-way up the pass into LA on I-5 and got my first Lesser Goldfinch feeding in the weeds, and Common Raven soaring over the hills along the pass. Diverting via the San Fernando valley, where Western Scrub-Jays flitted across the road, I also managed to skim the salt-marsh just south of Oxnard on Route 1, where I found White-throated Swift along the cliffs, an unidentified hummingbird, and a Loggerhead Shrike.

After a somewhat futile meeting at UCLA, I did manage to get another 30 minutes before dusk at Malibu Lagoon. It was much the same as the previous day, although I also saw Virginia Rail close to the path and Willet on the beach.

The next day was a full interview day at UCLA, but I did manage to get a lifer - an Anna's Hummingbird in Duilio's back yard, and was treated to the interesting sight of Ravens on the UCLA campus, along with more (probably Anna's) hummingbirds.

Oct 21st was only a half day of trying to sound intelligent in front of strangers, and I escaped in the early afternoon to exchange interview clothes for birding clothes and head out to Stunt Canyon via an unsuccessful attempt to locate the LA Audubon Society bookstore. Working in a little light before dusk, I managed to find Spotted Towhee and a probable Rufous-crowned Sparrow, along with Hermit Thrush, White-crowned Sparrow and a Sharpie, but was stymied by the lack of time/light, and my own inexperience with many of the western bird calls - even the Yellow-rumped Warblers have a western accent.

I returned to Stunt Canyon early in the morning of Oct 22nd, to be greeted by a Nuttall's Woodpecker seen from the roadside pull-out, Spotted Towhee, Wrentit, Bushtit, a small flock of Oregon-race Dark-eyed Junco, Oak Titmouse, California Towhee, Fox Sparrow, Western Scrub-Jay and my first Say's Phoebe.

Oct 22nd was my first big driving day, so after an hour or so at Stunt Canyon I drove back through LA, down to San Diego (it looked much closer on the map) and on to Cabrillo Point State Park. Over the ranger station I caught a White-tailed Kite which promptly vanished, and the peninsula was a little quiet - giving my second flock of Bushtit for the day, and another Say's Pheobe. Ultimately, I didn't spend much time here, and decided to head out over the mountains to the Salton Sea.

The little Mitsubishi really didn't like doing 70 mph up the mountain passes, and it's still the only time I've ever had to manually shift an automatic into 3rd to get it to maintain a decent speed on the upgrade. Nevertheless the fast desert roads got me into the Salton Sea with enough time to spot quite a few birds before sundown. There were fields swarming with Egrets, Herons and a few Ibis along I-8, but no place to pull off and look at them (probably Cattle and Great Egret, White-faced Ibis). I'm also fairly sure I saw (only my third) Roadrunner on the agricultural fields next to I-8, but travelling at 70mph makes the ID a little tougher.

Salton Sea deservedly had my highest total for any site on the tour, and it was absolutely teeming with Eared Grebe (new for the USA for me), White and Brown Pelican, more ducks than I could bear to look at, and many other birds. My first Verdin gave me tolerable looks, but after some coaxing the Gambel's Quail were much more forthcoming. Abert's Towhee hopped conveniently right in front of me. I wimped out on trying to figure out which Gnatcatcher I saw, and marked it as a Blue-gray. Salton Sea was humming, however, and quite a contrast to the NYC area which was experiencing quite a tail-off in the fall migration. Black-winged Stilt, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Curlew were easy to spot in the marshes. I had one Ibis a long way out on the marsh, but resisted the temptation to count it as a White-faced.

I stayed overnight at Yuma, AZ and headed north the following morning (Oct 23rd) to Imperial National Wildlife Refuge. I was greeting by Black and Say's Phoebe, by second Verdin, and a relatively determined swarm of mosquitos. This I hadn't figured on - mozzie's in the desert !! Imperial was not as productive as it might have been (OK, I was getting spoiled - another Sora, a probable Ash-throated Flycatcher, Gambel's Quail in the parking lot, Abert's Towhee, Phainopepla and Gila Woodpecker) etc, so after a brief foray down the sandy and rutted road, I headed out for another go at Salton Sea.

Trying the less popular/productive areas at Salton Sea I did manage to pick up Surf Scoter of all things, plus a couple of Bonaparte's Gulls, neither of which are exactly common in the area. I added some Common Ground Dove to the list, but the most spectacular lifer of the whole trip was flocks of hundreds of White-faced Ibis (along with many, many Cattle and Great Egret) headed out over the fields to feed. A couple of Red-tailed Hawks led me to entertain thoughts of more exotic raptors (they look different in the West, trust me).

My trip plans lead me north along the eastern edge of Salton Sea, via an unsuccessful attempt to find Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (which is probably more interesting than Joshua Tree), up through Joshua Tree. I keep coming back to Joshua Tree, and this time was rewarded by it being as dead as a doornail and a complete waste of time. OK, I did get some shots of the huge LA smog cloud rolling into the Palm Springs valley, but that's about it. The shots didn't come out too well, either.

The first time I went to Joshua Tree, in June 1993, it was alive with orioles, wrens etc, but I've never managed to reproduce that experience, so can't recommend it for the bird-life. After writing this, in June 2000, my friend Phebe promptly proved me wrong by getting all sorts of desert birds at Joshua Tree. After scratching the rental car on a few cacti and other robust desert flora, I headed across the high desert before stopping once more at the Motel 6 in Bakersfield for the evening. Oct 23rd had turned out to be perhaps the least productive day of the trip, with only one life species and most other birds seen on the previous days, strung together with some hard driving.

Early in the morning of Oct 24th, last day of the trip, I headed west across the Central Valley, stopping only for some road construction, to stare at a probable Rough-legged Hawk, and to U-turn to get a better view of a small group of California Quail. A little behind schedule, I didn't stop to admire the rolling grassland of the foothills, and the view from the mountain roads, on the way to San Luis Obispo. A Yellow-billed Magpie flew across the front of the car, but it was the Acorn Woodpecker along with more Magpies and a Purple Finch, that led me to stop the car for a while at the pastures along Rt-58.

A couple of life birds under my belt for the morning, I headed out to Morro Rock, where I found Canyon Wren, Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorant, Common Loon, more Long-billed Curlew and one or two Black Oystercatcher. Fog somewhat limited my abilities to get all three cormorants in one go, and it wasn't until I reached Montana de Oro State Park beyond Los Osos that I finally got a convincing Pelagic Cormorant to complete the set. I had all three species in one field of view at this point. This little detour was amply justified by a stroll around the campground loop, which in the space of a few minutes produced Townsend's Warbler, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, an unidentified flycatcher (Western Wood-Pewee ?), a Cooper's Hawk, and a fairly tame group of California Quail.

This place certainly justified more attention, but I was short on time so I headed back out to Route 101 and southwards. I did take a little time to stop behind the fire station at Lake Los Carneros and came up with my first Orange-crowned Warbler, my second Nuttall's Woodpecker, a Western Tanager, and a few other interesting birds before I got back onto the road.

I stopped briefly at Oxnard marshes again as I cut south to LA, but spent little time there and saw basically nothing. The sun was dropping out of the sky at a perceptible rate, and I was racing to make it to Malibu before sundown.

Finally, I pulled into Malibu Lagoon for the third time, almost as the sun set, and got the regulars once again. After sunset, and on my way back along the path to the car, I was greeted by my last bird, and my last lifer for the trip, a Bewick's Wren dust-bathing on the path.

122 species, 28 lifers, 3.5 birding days. Tolerable :)