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Saturday, March 15, 2008

California Birding


           My first experience in California was a stopover in San Francisco en-route to London in January 2003. I managed to sneak out of the airport for two hours via the courtesy bus, which dropped me off right next to the City of Burlingname-Bird Sanctuary. Walking along the Bay trail, I was eager to see some new species. The first of my walk was a Willet flying fast over the water. Then a Brown Pelican, diving for fish. There were, literally, thousands of shorebirds huddled on the beach, and on the rocks were Black Turnstones, another new species for me. With time ticking away and paranoia about missing my flight setting in, I made one fast lap around the marsh boardwalks. Within minutes I excitedly added Snowy Egret, California Towhee and Black Phoebe. Time had run out and I made my way back to the Marriott Hotel for the return trip to the airport. The journey back to foggy old London was long but I submerged myself in National Geographic and looked at all the possible birds I could see in California. There was one thing I was certain of, I would return, but when?
            It wasn’t until 2008, five years later, that I received an email from Trevor Forder inviting me to California; how fantastic! Trevor, a great friend and birding buddy, had a business meeting down in San Francisco and was, cleverly, turning it into a birding trip. After I got the green light from my partner Lori, it was all systems go! We had a few months to organize the logistics and read up on some of the California birding guides.
            Our route took us down the I-5 Highway, through Washington and Oregon, then west to Crescent City and south along the California Coast. From there we headed east to Redding. Back on the I-5, south to Bakersville then southeast to Tehachapi, which is west of the Mojave Desert. From here, we headed south down Highway14 and attempted to cross the San Gabriel Mountains into Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the road was closed because of snow. So, we backtracked and braved the L.A. traffic down to Newport Bay. We then followed the coast highway up to Ventura, then out to the Carrizo Plain, Mount Pinos and Santa Cruz Island. North along the I-5 to Merced and Livermore. We proceeded around and through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Rafael. From San Rafael we headed back onto the I-5 and home.

27th February 2008

            Trip day had arrived. I was set to take the Duke Point ferry to Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. Trevor picked me up at 8:50 p.m. and we headed south! We arrived in Olympia, Washington at 12:40 a.m. and stayed in a Super 8, very tired.

28th February 2008 (day 1) 

We departed Olympia at 6:10 a.m. and entered Oregon 7:50 a. m. At Grants Pass (12:50 p.m.), we drove west along the I-99 Highway and entered into California. After a quick stop, we headed down to Crescent City (3:00 p.m.) then south along Route 101. Our reason for this detour from the I-5 was with motive; Arctic Loon!  This bird had been reported at Stone Lagoon, just north of Arcata.
            Though we spent most of our time driving, we did make a few stops, soaking in such delights as Red-shouldered Hawk and Acorn Woodpecker. Another pit stop at Redwood Creek Picnic Area produced my first lifer, Wrentit. Shortly after this we got to Stone Lagoon and instantly found the Arctic Loon. It was very close to shore and preening. In hindsight, we were extremely lucky, as the bird immediately moved away and was gone within ten minutes of us seeing it. With our target bird safely in the bag, we headed east to Redding for the night.

California coast
29th February 2008 (day 2)

Our first port of call was the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, which is located conveniently just off the I5. The refuge is made up from six sub refuges covering an area of 35,000 acres, including grassland, marshes, ponds and seasonal wetlands.
It was thrilling to see so many Greater White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese and White-faced Ibis. While cruising the autoroute, Western Scrub Jays called from the willows and White-tailed Kites circled above the fields. Our target species was Ross’s Goose but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any.
            Next we travelled to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge where we tried for the Ross’s Goose again. No luck here, but worth a look with great wetlands to enjoy. We, then, headed into the Yolo Farmlands, a good place for Mountain Plover we heard! En-route, we picked up two very nice raptors: Ferruginous Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk. As we drove on, both of us were scanning in earnest, not only the ploughed fields for plovers but the trees too, as we were now well inside the range for ….”STOP..Yellow-billed Magpie!” I am sure our road maneuver was illegal, but worth it for this very cool endemic! 
            We spent a lot of time scanning for the plovers;  little did we know they were just around the corner, but I will save that for later. Anyhow, with no luck on the ploughed fields we made a quick stop at The Yolo County Grasslands Regional Park. Our quarry, was a small brown bird that likes to nest in ground squirrel burrows; the Burrowing Owl. Alas, we were out of luck and out of daylight. Time to move on, move south, back on the I-5. We pulled into a Motel 8 in Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield, at midnight and collapsed.

01st March 2008 (day 3)

            The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and though we were both tired,  we had to get up and out as we were chasing another tough bird: the Le Conte’s Thrasher. The long drive the night before was worth it, as our destination would only be about a forty-minute drive that morning. Jawbone Canyon is known as one of the best places in the area to find Le Conte’s Thrasher. The only problem was the wind; it was brutal. On top of the gusting, there was a dirt bike rally, with 125 Yamahas whizzing this way and that. Though we got a few nice birds;  Sage Sparrow, a Say’s Phoebe and Prairie Falcon, we had no luck locating the thrasher. We had one other place to try for these shy elusive birds, so we decide to push on.
It had to be done:)

Jawbone Canyon
            We headed south on Highway 14, then along Route 138 to Route 2 where we attempted to cross the San Gabriel Mountains. After we bought our mandatory park pass, we started to make our way across, only to find the road was closed due to heavy snow. A quick pit stop produced Mountain Chickadee and Clark’s Nutcracker but that was about it. We turned around and investigated a few different side roads before braving the Los Angeles traffic, to get to our next stop; Upper Newport Bay.
San Gabrial Mountains
            Upper Newport Bay, also known as Back Bay, is the biggest estuary in southern California. When we arrived, there were Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit feeding in the mudflats. Also, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and Black Skimmer were resting in the sun. Our first surprise was a very small one: Allen’s Hummingbird. At first it stayed just far enough away to torment us, but it quickly moved perches and landed about 10 feet away. We then began to search the scrub chaparral for an extremely localized bird. Trevor and I separated for about ten minutes when I decided to turn back and see if Trevor had any luck. I looked down to where our car was parked, to see Trevor walking back towards me with a spring in his step. We cut along another small path and looked across some very thick scrub. About ten feet away, a small bird began moving up to the top of a bush, scalding as it did. California Gnatcatcher! After a few missed birds we were ready for a good one, and we got it.
            Back at the hotel we caught up with our notes, showered, went out for some dinner and then planned the next day’s itinerary; then turned in for an early night.

02nd March 2008 (day 4)

            After a good night sleep and breakfast, we made our way back to Newport Back Bay. The tide was high, but still lots of shorebirds around. As we approached the car park, we could see a woman scanning with her binoculars towards our car. Immediately, a stocky brown bird with a curve bill shot across in front of us. We parked the car and spoke to the woman and she confirmed our hunch: California Thrasher. We waited to see if it would show again, but the bird remained hidden. It turns out, that the woman was leading a local Audubon’s birding group and gave us a good tip and map on where to find another California Thrasher. We birded for another half hour adding Clapper Rail and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow.
            Thirty minutes later we were at The Santiago Oaks Regional Park. Not only did she tell us where to go, but she also gave us precise directions to where the bird was holding territory. After scrutinizing our scribbled map, we decided we were in the right place and, we most certainly were; there in front of us was a singing California Thrasher! Five minutes after that a Rufous-crowned Sparrow popped up. 
Things were starting to go our way, and as we made our way out of the park we added yet another lifer for both of us: Oak Titmouse.
Joshua Tree
            Back on the coast we checked Huntington Beach for Snowy Plover. No plovers for us, though a similar looking Sanderling made us look twice! The beach was quiet for birds, but it was nice to see Western Gulls, Caspian Terns and more Brown Pelicans.
            Further up the coast, we checked the Bolsa Chica State Park. The shorebirds there were an amazing sight. We scanned for Snowy Plover but came up, again empty handed. A dancing Reddish Egret was a great bonus bird. It was cool watching this large member of the heron family dash around in the shallows; spreading its wings while it hunted for fish. Other trip birds were added here such as Pectoral Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover.
            Next we decided to try for a rare Thick-billed Kingbird that had been reported at Banning Park. It took a while to find this inner city park and all the time we continued our scans for Spotted Dove. We never did find the dove, and we looked everywhere! The park itself was busy with lots of people; some of which looked a little intimidating, to say the least. It was the first time we had felt a little uncomfortable being in L.A. We did two quick laps of the park; scanning the wires and trees for the bird but failed to locate it. “Ok, let’s get out of here!”
            Not locating the dove was giving us some frustration so we decided to follow the coastal route through Palos Verdes as we had read that the birds were seen there occasionally. No luck. Lots of Mourning Dove and Eurasian Collared-Dove but no Spotted. We stayed on Highway 1 and travelled through Malibu and onto Ventura, which would be our home for the next two nights.

03rd March 2008 (day 5)
This morning we headed north on Highway 33 to Maricopa, Carrizo Plain. Our goal was to see the Le Conte’s Thrasher. This lush and scenic road took us through some really amazing oak ravines. We were stopped at an automated traffic light, that was set to control vehicles through a tunnel, when I heard a call! I jumped out of the car and looked up. There, raising its crest and calling, was another new species for me: Nuttall’s Woodpecker.
            Following the instructions from the Lane Birdfinding Guide of Southern California, we made our way to a pullout near Petroleum Club Road, Carrizo Plain. This wash was perfect with no dirt bikes, no wind and best of all no No Trespassing signs. We were only out of the car a few minutes before we heard a thrasher singing. We moved slowly through the low brush, stopped and listened? Silence. We did spot a Northern Mockingbird on a wire, which is not a good sign, as they are fantastic mimics. But we weren’t convinced the mockingbird was there to trick us. Slowly we walked back to the car and heard it sing again-then stop. Puzzled, we walked out again with no success. We returned to the road and watched a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flit around in a bush for a while.
            Time for plan B. We both agreed that we had heard the thrasher but were confused about direction. We decided to walk the other side of the road and see if we had any more luck. Cautiously, we walked, stopped and listened. As we approached the road, over a small rise we found the bird. It only stayed in sight for a few seconds then jumped to the ground with its tail held high in the air, then disappeared into the brush. Luckily, only for a minute, then returned to its perch and began to sing again. Le Conte’s Thrasher, YES!
            Our euphoria was enjoyed with lots of high fives and a great feeling of relief. What is next? Well, we decided to go and check out Soda Lake. Soda Lake is a shallow, mineral-encrusted pan several thousand acres in extent in the middle of the Carrizo Plain. This area is excellent habitat for wintering Sandhill Cranes which can be seen in large numbers from October through to March. We only made it about five miles along the Soda Lake Road when we decided to turn round. The scenery and the birds were great but the road was terrible. We did, however, get to see Mountain Bluebirds, Loggerhead Shrikes and Horned Larks.
            Birding trips like this require a lot of energy, focus and obsessive drive; if you want to see your target birds; which happen to be spread out over a huge area and in very different terrain. So, today we were both feeling pretty good about life, and decided to take our time and enjoy the birds. We took a leisurely drive through the Los Padres National Forest, stopping at the Castle Crags Condor site, one of the most reliable places to spot California Condors back in the day.
Los Padres National Forest
            We continued on past the Apache Saddle Ranger Station then turned and began our ascent of Mount Pinos. As we made our way up we stopped periodically to listen for the sweet sound of -“QUEark!” Regrettably, we heard no such sound, nor would we for the remainder of the trip. We were just a little early for Mountain Quail. However, about half way up, while listening intently we did notice something tapping. We both followed the sound that was near by and began to look for movement. And there, at the bottom of a Pine tree were two extremely awesome White-headed Woodpeckers! Male and female. We watched for a while, but they didn’t seem concerned at all about our presence, though when I finally decided to get out my camera they moved on. This was a huge treat, as I know many people have missed seeing this unpredictable specialty. Back in Ventua, we checked out the harbour, and enjoyed the huge spectacle of watching Brown Pelicans going to roost on the rocks. Whimbrel and Willets made there way along the shore and we made our way back to the hotel.

04th March 2008 (day 6)    

            Santa Cruz Island is situated west of Ventura and is part of the Channel Islands National Park.  It is home to many species but most famous is the Island Scrub-Jay, endemic to Santa Cruz Island. We arrived at Ventura harbour in plenty of time and set off just after  9:00 a.m. As we left the harbour we picked up a new species for our trip: Wandering Tattler. The pelagic birds were almost absent as we crossed the ocean. There were, however, small groups of Surf Scoters, huge rafts of Western Grebe and a few cormorants along the way. We also saw some interesting mammals including one Humpback Whale, seven Gray Whale and  many California Sea Lion.
            When we arrived on Santa Cruz Island it only took ten minutes to locate our first Island Scrub-Jay. This was fortunate, as our guide had informed us that they might not be that straightforward to locate during breeding season. We were immensely happy not to have to work hard for that bird and spent our time discovering the many trails. Orange-crowned Warbler and  Wrentit were our companions while we explored this beautiful island. After returning from Santa Cruz we headed north to Merced.

Island Scrub-Jay
05th March 2008 (day 7)

            This morning’s excursion was not included in our original itinerary, but was added because we got a good tip from a local birder. As we were leaving Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, earlier in the week, we got talking to a local birder; and after a little Q & A, he told us of a Long-eared Owl roost at Mercy Hot Springs. I phoned Lori back on Vancouver Island and she, kindly, Googled the place and checked the Rare Bird Alert. It all looked good, the owls had been reported and Lori looked at a satellite view of the springs and said, “There’s nothing. I mean, nothing there except a small stand of trees!” Perfect. We were going! And little did we know, but we were in for an amazing days' birding.
            As we headed down the main road to Mercy Hot Springs, we got our first look at a Cassin’s Kingbird! It was, admittedly, a stringy look; as it flew from a wire and out of sight. We did get better looks at it further down the road, where it boldly perched on a barbwire fence. When we arrived at Mercy Hot Springs, there was nobody around. There were a few rental trailers set within some trees. We knocked on a few doors with no luck, until finally a man showed up to inform us that the owners require $10 each to look around on their property. A little fishy, I think, but we agreed. After collecting the cash, he then told us that he'd heard the owls were gone. We smiled and nodded and began to search. I went through the centre of the trees, while Trevor stayed on the outside path. After a few minutes I poked my head through the shrubs to see how Trevor was making out? He, of course, had a big grin on his face. “So, how many have you seen?”
            I clambered through the bushes, walked briskly along the path and looked up. There were at least 9 Long-eared Owls looking back at us! They seemed extremely alert, as it was still early morning. A few more were moving around in the middle of the trees, so we decided to back off cautiously, so as not to flush them. After taking a few photographs at distance we left them in peace.
            We followed the same road back out and decided to make some stops and scan for Burrowing Owl. On our way to the Long-eared Owl roost, we drove through some prime farmland habitat. In particular, an area that had a colony of Ground Squirrels near some old discarded farm machinery; which would act as great perches for these diurnal owls. Our instincts paid off and sitting tight and almost invisible next to a burrow were two, Burrowing Owl. We were having a great morning and there was more to come. Just up the road, we noticed a huge blackbird flock, which included Tri-Colored Blackbird (Trevor’s lifer), Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird and Brewer’s Blackbird.
Burrowing Owl

Long-eared Owl
            With luck on our side, we headed out to The San Luis Wildlife Refuge where we got to see at least 150 Sandhill Crane and a Great Horned Owl on a nest. Next we made a quick stop at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, where we found another Great Horned Owl, more Tri-colored Blackbird and a huge flock of Ross’s Goose. We then headed to Livermore; east of San Francisco, where we were staying the night and then headed south down Mines Road. The scenery was fantastic with green rolling hills and lots of Oak Woodland. There were Wild Turkey, Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, Lesser Goldfinch and Phainopepla.
            We stayed in Livermore and got some great news from Lori, back on Vancouver Island. Lori checked a California Rare Bird Alert and informed us that 200 Mountain Plover had been reported north of us on Route 113, just south of Dixon. This is one of the areas we had checked on our way down. We had almost given up on looking for these birds and now we had a decision to make. Do we go back to Mines Road as planned tomorrow or go for the plovers? No brainer!

06th March 2008 (day 8)

            As we travelled along Route 113 we were looking for a sign. The plovers were reported near a sign on a busy road, which read Enjoy California Lamb. We spotted the sign but had nowhere to pull over. We continued on until we could u-turn and then headed back to the sign where we found a small pull off. We both got out of the car and looked in the fields. Nothing. At the same moment we both turned around and checked the fields across the road. There they were, covering the ground like moving clods of dirt: Mountain Plovers! We both counted 161 birds. The intensity and frustration brought on from searching for them over the last week immediately turned to relief and elation. We had worked hard to find them and it was worth it. What a fantastic bird. Back on Mines Road we checked all the Lesser Goldfinch for a rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch, but didn’t find any. Many of the birds from previous days birding were seen again, though we added Golden Eagle and White-throated Swift. Next we travelled to Palo Alto and had an enjoyable time looking at all the shorebirds and waterfowl. It was interesting seeing Canvasback dabbling in the shallows, their heads covered in mud. With light fading, we headed through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Rafael. As we, or should I say Trevor, was there on business; we booked into the Embassy Hotel. It was our only luxurious treat on the trip and it was welcomed and well timed. Instead of having to walk to a gas station for coffee, we were able to watch as a chef custom made our breakfast.

Mountain Plovers!
07th March 2008 (day 9)

            As Trevor’s first conference wasn’t until the evening we headed out to Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Point Reyes National Seashore offers some of the finest birdwatching in the United States. More than 70,000 acres of habitat harbor an incredible variety of bird life. Nearly 490 avian species have been observed in the park and on adjacent waters.
The day was spent exploring a few, of the many, scenic trails. The first was a walk out to Chimney Rock, where we added some new species to the trip list: Rock Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Black Oystercatcher and Brant. The scenery was breathtaking, with huge beaches and a rugged coastline. We, then, made our way to the lighthouse where we got to see Gray Whale, rocks covered in Common Murre and our first Peregrine Falcon.
            Finally, we went down to Abbott’s Lagoon, where we had an enjoyable hike along trails, around the lagoon and over some sand dunes where we, eventually, located a small group of Snowy Plover.

Chimney Rock Point

Point Reyes lighthouse
08th March 2008 (day 10)

            We made one more trip out to Point Reyes that morning, checking some of the marsh habitat where we added Virginia Rail. Back at the hotel we prepared the vehicle for the trip home and then Trevor went to his final meeting, while I walked a local trail. There was a Clark’s Grebe, Cooper’s Hawk, White-tailed kites and a group of four Acorn Woodpeckers to keep me busy. We departed San Rafael at 5:00 p.m. and followed the I-5 north, adding a Barn Owl en-route. We ended up staying in some sleazy motel somewhere in Oregon, and after a few restless hours of sleep, we headed back out on the road. I don’t remember much of the journey, as I fell asleep, but we ended up back at Tsawwassen ferry terminal by about 2:00 p.m. and caught the next sailing home. We travelled over 7000 kilometres and got a species count of 206 birds; 10 new species for Trevor and 21 for me.