Monday, May 18, 2015

Returning to Southern California With Rain and A lot of Birds

In January, birding buddy Gordon Karre and I planned and put in reservations for a May 16th pelagic birding trip out of San Diego, California.  After my pelagic trip got cancelled last year due to dangerous weather conditions to make the ocean waters formidable, I was hoping for that chance to see some of the ocean and it's fantastic birds.  An Albatross was what I was wanting to see more than anything else out on the open ocean waters.  It didn't matter what Albatross it was, I just wanted an Albatross.  Black-footed is the expected Albatross on San Diego waters, while Laysan is accidental.  This post will not include the pelagic trip, but the focal point of the trip was to go on the pelagic birding excursion.  So now I have it all in your heads of what was most important about this trip.  Seabirds and more seabirds!  As Gordon and I are both hardcore birders who get along well, we of course made it an epic trip around the pelagic outing as well.  On Wednesday, May 13th, Gordon informed me about a storm that was coming into San Diego that would bring a lot of rain in on Thursday night and throughout much of Friday.  I was ticked off.  The same thing happened last year when I birded SoCal with Dominic Sherony.  We got drenched the first 2 to 3 days of our 5 day trip.  But it didn't let us stop our birding activities, and we still had a more-than-productive trip.  The winds were too high to bear at times, which is what made the ocean waters too dangerous to venture out on.  But this time was different for Gordon and me.  I looked at the forecast, and wind wasn't a problem, and the weather was to be cleared out by Friday night, the day before our pelagic.  We arrived into San Diego on Thursday night in the rain and we were brainstorming about what to do in the rain all day Friday.  Despite the weather when traveling, we are the rain-or-shine type of birders.  Let me introduce to you all a lifer birding tactic for the both of us-umbrella birding.

Umbrella birding allows one to be hardcore and it's not all that hard.  I found myself holding my umbrella in one hand and my binoculars/camera in the other had while observing and photographing birds during this freaky Friday of May 15th, 2015.  At first Gordon and I took turns holding the umbrella while the other would photograph the birds freely.  And then we graduated into hardcore umbrella birders and we did things ourselves.  The birds we were seeking out first and foremost on the day were two life birds apiece:  California Gnatcatcher and Gull-billed Tern for Gordon and Gull-billed Tern and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron for me.  Two locations would give us these birds, which were both in San Diego:  Mission Trails Regional Park and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge.  Because California Gnatcatcher is a small songbird and is probably tougher to find later in the day, Gordon and I visited their haunts at Mission Trails Regional Park to start our day out.  We walked up the Deerfield Trail at the Park to look for the small SoCal specialties, which is where Dominic and I had our birds last year.  I felt as if I wanted to see them just as bad as Gordon did, because it was still a bird I had only seen once in my life.  As we walked up the trail, it didn't take us long to find a family group of five California Gnatcatchers.  They foraged around in dense habitat before a male eventually popped up and gave us great views, and Gordon great photo opportunities.  After we moved on, I didn't have any pictures.  And I wanted pictures.  So we went to the car, got our umbrellas, and went back as the rain started to come down hard.  We quickly found the California Gnatcatchers again and Gordon held up the umbrellas over my head while I got a few shots of this limited specialty.

After we were satisfied with Gnatcatcher birding, we headed south to the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge.  It was here that we were both targeting our lifer Gull-billed Tern as well as my lifer Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  This location was very neat, and it had a wide variety of birds throughout the duration that Gordon and I hiked and spent six hours at.  The Slough had a visitor center and a wide variety of trails to hike on.  The first bird that we saw was a male Northern Harrier.  There was also a nice habitat selection at this location, but one of my favorites was the Tijuana River running through the area with in midst of the saltmarsh habitat.

After visiting with a friendly lady at the Visitor's Center in the Refuge, we started looking for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons along the water where she hinted for us to look.  And it didn't take us all too long to find one!

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a very cool-looking bird, and it is one I have wanted to see for quite some time.  This area of San Diego has a local breeding population, and in this area of Tijuana Slough is a such example.  Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are mainly a southeastern United States heron, but there is this population in San Diego.  Arizona even has some vagrancy records.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feeds highly on crustaceans and is active mainly at night but is also active often during the day.  With this individual being active, perhaps it was because of the dark clouds and rain.  Gordon and I were able to get up close with this neat bird.  I sat back and enjoyed this lifer for close to twenty minutes, and it was also Gordon's second time ever of seeing the species.  It's almost like we reversed roles with this bird and the California Gnatcatcher.  

And as you all know be by now, I love to get in pictures with birds.  Here is my latest selfie.

After enjoying the Heron, Gordon and I continued south through the Refuge along trails that eventually took us to the mouth of the Tijuana River.  A LOT of birds were out at this productive mouth of the river, and this was the location where someone had reported eight Gull-billed Terns two weeks earlier.  We were hoping there would be at least one of them there.  At this point, the rain had started to pour, and despite having umbrellas, Gordon and I were soon drenched.  From the start of scanning the river mouth, terns were in obvious abundance.

I carefully placed my scope under my umbrella and scanned the terns on the banks of the river mouth.  It didn't take me long to find our lifer Gull-billed Terns, and I had three of them in our scope view.  Gordon and I ended up being reasonably close to the mouth of the river and we were right by a bench overlook.  There was some water and saltmarsh near us, and many terns started to come over and feed by where we were standing.  Several of the Gull-billed Terns came on over and hunted over the saltmarsh near us, giving us good looks.  The pouring rain was evident in this photo as the tern was hunting over the marshy area.

The rain made it rather challenging to fully enjoy this lifer, but we tried our best, and some reasonable shots were obtained out of it.  This tern is the whitest out of North America's tern species and it was once driven to nearly being extinct because of a high demand for their feathers to be used on women's hats.  These terns often still and eat recently hatched chicks from other birds nests and also utilize fields and marshes for hunting rather than open water.  It's main diet consists of insects but it also takes worms, frogs, and crustaceans.  

The Gull-billed Tern show was a neat thing to see, and five other terns in Royal, Caspian, Least, Forster's, and Elegant Terns really made things interesting with six different terns seen in one spot.  Here is a Forster's Tern that hunted over the water nearby us as well as a smaller group of Elegant Terns.  Many Elegant Terns flew over the area throughout the walk.

After Gordon and I headed back to the Visitor's Center we continued to get drenched by the rain.  We made one more pass by the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron who continued to hang around the same spot.  After looking over the rest of the area at the Visitor Center, we headed to a section of the Refuge that went along the coast.  At this point, we were after two endangered targets:  Snowy Plover and California Least Tern.  These two species nest in sensitive areas along the coast and the refuge has built fences around this area to preserve the two species.  As long as people don't go in the fenced area, they are allowed to walk along the outskirts of the area.  This still gives birders good chances to view these species while they are nesting, mating, and raising young.

When we got here, something awesome happened.  The rain stopped and the sun was finally shining through.

Snowy Plovers and Least Terns are both tiny in both of their own family trees.  As Gordon and I walked along the boundaries, we were on the lookout for both species.  Movement in the sand resulted in our first California Snowy Plovers.  

Because Snowy Plovers have young nearby or are about to have young, they have to constantly be on the lookout for predators.

The pictures of the Snowy Plover above is of an adult male, who has dark sides.  The picture below is of a female Snowy Plover, who doesn't have as striking of features.  Gordon found a Snowy Plover nest with eggs on it and this female eventually went over and sat on top of it.  Once she sat down, I didn't want to get any closer than to where I was.

The funnest part of the walk for me came when we started to come upon the Least Tern colonies.  Least Terns were everywhere along the stretch.  They were noisy, hanging out in pairs, fishing, males were feeding females, and they were plain awesome!

Gordon also spied a Least Tern nest.  At times females would leave the nest and go elsewhere, and a lot of times males would come in to feed the females small fish while they were sitting on the nest.

As you can all tell by now, I think the Least Tern is an awesome bird.

As we headed back to the vehicle, we walked along the River and found a Little Blue Heron.  In San Diego, Little Blue Herons are somewhat local and are present in small numbers like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  This is a species I have seen once in my life prior to this day so it was interesting to cross paths with one again.

While watching along the River, two more Little Blue Herons flew in.  One was another adult like the one photographed above and the other one was a younger bird who is molting into adulthood.  

Another highlight along the shore was this Whimbrel.

After spending six hours at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, we headed to the headquarters where we'd kick back before the next day of our pelagic trip.  I took Mark Och's advice and had a spaghetti dinner before the big day.  I was anxious, and I was highly anticipating and hoping for a pelagic.  A pelagic that was free of seasickness and any crap that would go along with it.  After a jaunt we took at looking for Red-crowned Parrots, we called it a day for birding.  We did walk across the street to look at the boat we were going to be taking out on the pelagic, which was the highly talked up Grande.  This 85' boat seemed to be awesome, but that opinion wouldn't be completed until I rode on the boat.  After taking medications for motion sickness, the night came to an end and when I'd wake up, it would officially be pelagic time.  Hopefully Grande pelagic time....


  1. Wow Mr. Tommy, what a post!!! Having six species of tern at one spot is crazy! You cleaned house out there!

    1. Thanks Caleb, it was quite the experience. There were six terns yes, and the fun thing was they were all present in good numbers!

  2. Hard to believe you got all that awesome birding all into one post! And despite the weather, you got some fantastic photos! A great day even birding the in the rain. It's only water after all and clothing will dry out and it did. We did well in protecting our gear. The best is yet to come.

    1. That's how we roll Gordon! We make the best out of those crappy weather situations. Umbrella birding is now one of the best..

  3. Sounds like a great trip! Glad to hear you didn't let the rain beat you. Those shots of the Yellow-crowned Night Herons are stunning! Fun birds with fun company....looking forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks Josh! The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was an awesome bird to see for the first time, and it is quite the striking bird. My next post is the fun one!

  4. It's terrible that you keep running into bad weather! I lived in SoCal for most of my life and we don't get much rain usually. Keep will find an Albatross!

    1. Thanks Josh! I guess I must bring the rain. Hey if it's good for SoCal maybe I should book more trips, eh?! Check out my next post, there may be an Albatross involved...