Friday, February 28, 2014

Birding the Coast...For Real!?

When I went on a trip to Six Flags at my church years ago in 2003, we stopped at Seal Beach California for 30 minutes.  While my youth group went swimming, I went birding.  I identified a few birds that day along that coast, but since then, I haven't been to the coast.  I've been dying to, and I finally got the chance today.  Dominic and I woke up early and headed out to the San Diego coast from various points, and the day was hopefully to be be filled with some amazing birding.  But there was a slight problem....high winds and heavy rain.  Due to this crisis, our pelagic boating trip was cancelled.  We don't get to bird San Diego often, so we made the best out of the day, and birded like hardcore champions!  This was on February 28th, 2014.

We stayed at a place off of Mission Bay the first night of our birding trip, and we started off our second day by driving to the many locations and views of the ocean that may be observed from Ocean Beach Park and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.  The high winds and heavy rains made the weather horrible from the start, but it didn't even come close to stopping us from seeing our wanted birds!  I loved the Pacific Ocean all over again when I finally saw it after years of horrible absence.

The birds didn't seem to mind the winds, especially the Brown Pelicans!  Perhaps this made feeding conditions even easier for them...

The San Diego Coast immediately gave me the change to see my favorite gull up close and in high numbers.  Ironically, this gull isn't a new lifer for me, as I did bag one in Tucson for my lifer as a vagrant.  But here, they are everywhere and viewable in different plumages.  This is a Heerman's Gull, my favorite of the gulls, and this is an adult Heerman's Gull in breeding plumage.

Young Heerman's Gulls look very different from adults.  Here are a few of the young guns!

The shores were teeming with birds, including these two shorebirds, the Sanderling and Willet.  Both were running up and down up the beach as the tide came rolling in.



The entire San Diego area is filled with gulls.  The most common is the Western Gull, who are everywhere.  I did find Arizona's 3rd ever record of this species, but here in Cali, they are probably considered to be one of the most abundant birds.  And they are pretty cool!

As the wind and rain conditions continued, Dominic and I still tried our best.  We weren't seeing any pelagic birds such as shearwaters or jaegers or rocky shorebirds like we were hoping for, but the time was still great.  

As we drove down Sunset Cliffs Road, luck hit us on a big ol' rock sticking out of the ocean.

As you can see, there are many cormorants and another Western Gull on this rock.  There are actually three species of cormorant on this rock, which are the Double-crested, Brandt's, and Pelagic Cormorants.  The latter two are my lifebirds, and it was an amazing sight to see!  The solo cormorant perched below the others is a Pelagic Cormorant, and it gave us great views of itself.  For me, the lifer views were great.

Pelagic Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant

Dominic and I then got word of a Black Oystercatcher being found at the Cabrilla National Monument near San Diego.  The rain dyed down and the sun actually came up during our search, which came up empty.  There were still other cool birds around, and this California Towhee was one of them.

As we were oystercatcher-ing, we got whimbreled on instead.  This Whimbrel was a decent consolation for an oystercatching strikeout.  

Brown Pelicans always look great in midst of the tide.

For some of the time when we were at the Cabrillo National Monument, the rain actually died down and we had clear skies.  The ocean with sunny clear skies is very beautiful!

Following a couple of reports from the San Diego Listserv, Dominic and I went in search for and pursuit of the rocky shorebirds that prefer the rocky areas and jettys along the coast.  The Black Oystercatcher that we missed was one of our targets.  A birder reported exact locations for these specific birds on the forum, and we went after as many of them as we could.  All of these birds were to be life birds for me....if we could find them.  Two of these finds were in the amazing area of La Jolla.  I loved the La Jolla area, it had many great birds and many previous incredible finds in it's birding history.  After the oystercatcher miss, we headed to one of the points were the guy had seen several Black Turnstones in La Jolla.  I've seen Ruddy Turnstone on one occasion, and the Black Turnstone is new.  After scanning for awhile at the given address, I spied a Black Turnstone along the shore!  And it wasn't easy, the shore was mossy and it seemed to like to go up and down in and between the mossy rocks.

Before I spied the Black Turnstone

After I spied the Black Turnstone

After seeing the Turnstone and after getting soaked by another heavy downpour of rain, we then went a short distance north to La Jolla Point and the Children's Pool in La Jolla.  It was here at Children's Pool that another life bird was found that would be new for me....the awesome Wandering Tattler.  These birds breed in tundra areas in the northern reaches of our continent, and then they winter along rocky shores of the coast.  It has always been a bird I have wanted to see, and Dominic and I were able to get on three of them at the Children's Pool.  They were good but not excellent views with the camera, but we did have killer scope views of the Wandering Tattlers.

Wandering Tattler

There was also a Surfbird group that was reported, but we couldn't exactly find out where they were.  Getting two new lifebirds that were the rocky shorebirds of the coast was awesome, the Wandering Tattler and Black Turnstone!  The Children's Pool area was pretty cool, and it's Harbor Seals attract many visitors, especially little kids.  What little kid wouldn't want to see this?

We then decided to spend the rest of our night along La Jolla, which was mainly from La Jolla Point and La Jolla Cove.  Birds were everywhere, and this area is a common place for local and visiting birders to watch for sea birds.  Dominic and I didn't spy any pelagic birds, but we did have several cool highlights.  One of them was a male Brandt's Cormorant in spectacular display!

Besides the flashy male, the rocks lining La Jolla Cove is an excellent place to observe large numbers of Brandt's Cormorants up close.

We then spied my 5th lifer of the day from La Jolla Point, this Royal Tern!  It was a very Royal lifer.  I don't have a lot of experience with terns and have seen many distant terns today prior to our evening watch at La Jolla that were probably Royal Terns, but this was the official confirmation.  What a cool bird!

The sunset at La Jolla Point to close out the night was something very beautiful!  I was wishing I was holding that special girl's hand while I was staring at the sunset.

This Western Gull (the guy in the back), certainly got his wish!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Birding California! A New World!

Months ago, my birding buddy Dominic Sherony emailed me about going on a birding trip to California and we made plans to do so.  We are covering the San Diego area, which includes several trips throughout San Diego and beyond over the course of today and the following four days.  Today has been great, and we birded our way to San Diego and have made key stops to enjoy some of southern California's unique bird life.  We are staying at Mission Bay tonight in San Diego, and are searching for sea birds from the coast early tomorrow, that's what the plan is.  The weather forecast is freaky, but we are rain or shine birders despite the forecast having a plethora of rain involved over the course of our stay.  This has sadly lead to our pelagic trip being canceled.  But regardless, we are seeing good birds and will likely continue to see good birds.  I'll get to our route today, and the neat places and birds we were able to see.

Dominic and I left Phoenix today at 6:30 A.M. and arrived in California at roughly 10:00 A.M.  We had a big agenda and plenty of birds we wanted to see, even on the way to San Diego.  The first stop was at a very small town by the name of Jacumba.

Jacumba isn't a good looking place by any means, and is a rather small and beat down looking town in a rural dusty community.  But it does have good birds for those wanting to see a few cool California specialties.  And one of those birds is the Tricolored Blackbird.  Dominic found out from fellow birder Diane Touret that this town is great for Tricolored Blackbirds, and Diane was right.  After making one pass through town, we didn't see them.   We then decided to head through the road of the towns that run through the neighborhood.  I then heard the calls of the Tricolored Blackbirds, which are a very distinctive and guttural sound.  We turned onto a street where the sound was coming from, and there they were....

A kind lady in town was putting seed outside in her yard, which attracted the Tricolored Blackbirds to that bare tree and her yard.  She was very welcoming to us, and she let us observe the birds up close and invited us to look into her yard.  And Dominic and I had a front row ticket to the Tricolored Blackbird show!  It was a lifer for me, the first of the trip.  The voice of the Tricolored is distinctive, but a good field mark of the adult male is the white wing covert.

As Dominic and I were on a mission to get good photographs of Tricolored Blackbirds, we stopped at an intersection in the middle of Jacumba and were discussing what to do.  Before I get to the next part of the story, I'll add that the skies were overcast and it was drizzling rain slightly.  With overcast conditions and also with the fact the Blackbirds were acting very nervous and skittish, we weren't going to get the best shots.  Most of the time, they perched up high.  But at this intersection I spied a thrasher like bird running on the ground, and I had a feeling it was another bird I was wanting to see...

As it popped up on a post out in the open, I realized it was my second life bird of the trip, my first ever California Thrasher!  Lately in Arizona, I've been lucky enough to see the Le Conte's, Crissal, Bendire's, Curve-billed, and Sage Thrashers up close.  Adding this bird to my life list in California was a very special addition.  Other than a small and local population in southern Oregon, the California Thrasher is limited to California in it's range.  It is very similar to a Crissal Thrasher but has a thicker bill and is more brown.  Gosh, what a nice bird.  It was a surprise to see it in Jacumba, as I was only thinking I would add Tricolored Blackbird as my only lifer for the location.

After the Jacumba surge, Dominic and I headed to the Cleveland National Forest to bird in the Laguna Mountains.  We chose to bird at a road called Kitchen Creek Road, which is filled with coastal chaparral and oak habitats.  There are a lot of great birds here, including some that I've been wanting to see for a long time.  Prior to our visit here, they were potential lifers, and when I heard one of my most wanted potential lifers singing when we got out of the van, I rushed out into the chaparral.  And before I get to that bird, here are a few scenes from the Laguna Mountains via Kitchen Creek Road.

This particular bird is unique in North America is the only member of it's family found in the country.  It's rather shy and hard to see at times, but it's loud song gives it away.  After awhile after waiting, and with patience, one shall see this small bird that has a tail that's longer than the rest of it's body.  For the photographer, the tail might make things extra interesting.  This bird is called the Wrentit, and it was one of my most wanted birds for the trip.  And luckily, this guy was very cooperative for us!  The Wrentit is limited to coastal chaparral habitats in North America from the northern part of Baja to southern Oregon.  Thus, this makes it another specialty that mainly has California written all over it.  So far, the Wrentit has been my favorite bird of the trip.  They are heard more often than seen, and Dominic and I heard at least 10 of them while birding from Kitchen Creek Road.

After the Wrentit, the California birds were far from done.  The case continued when a California Towhee started calling from a hillside and eventually presented itself to Dominic and I.  It was already my 4th life bird of the day.  The California Towhee used to be one species with the Canyon Towhee (formerly known together as Brown Towhee), and they were split into two.  In the United States, California is the best place to see California Towhee, as it's range mainly consists of California.

As we continued up Kitchen Creek Road, we still had plenty of birds to see with more and more potential.  My fifth life bird of the day presented itself in an oak tree.  This was the Oak Titmouse, one that favors oak woodlands of the Pacific Coast.  It used to be lumped as one species with the Juniper Titmouse, which both of them were known as Plain Titmouse.  Although this bird looks identical by all means to the Juniper Titmouse, they don't have range overlap hard at all and they also have different songs.  This bird photographed below sang in front of us for a long period of time.

After the Oak Titmouse, I had room for one more lifer, which was my sixth of the day.  That was another bird with California in it's name, the California Quail.  Dominic kicked up a large covey of these quail while I was away briefly, and we followed them up the slope they flew up into.  We had brief but diagnostic views of the quail, followed by the song of the male.  This area in California is also home to the elusive Mountain Quail, one that would be another life bird for me.  We didn't find that, but we hope to try again on this trip.  As we were about to leave, we heard what we think was the Nuttall's Woodpecker, another life bird for me.  We couldn't track it down, but they are common in the region and hopefully, one will show up in front of us during the course of the trip.  The number of lifers almost seems overwhelming for one day, but it's awesome.  Hopefully there will be more to come for the remainder of the trip that is on the awesome side.  

Right now, I am staying in San Diego at Mission Bay.  The weather forecast has winds and rain in it tomorrow, but that won't stop Dominic and I from trying to see these awesome California birds!