California, November 1999

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By Hazel and Allan Wright
PO Box 1418
Wden ACT 2606

We had our first taste of birding in California on 29 November 1999, when we were between planes en route to Costa Rica. We had collected information from the Internet about Marina del Rey, knew that it was a top spot for waders and shore-birds, and that it was just a few miles from the airport, so as soon as we had deposited our luggage at the hotel, instead of sleeping the day away, we dashed off and found our way to the Marina.

What a great time we had especially sorting out the many varieties of gulls and waders and seeing porpoises leaping out of the water only a few metres from the shore.

Unfortunately, we did not take the telescope with us but we had wonderful views of Black Turnstone, Red-breasted Merganser, Brown Pelican, Willet, Marbled Godwit and Semi-palmated Plover to name but a few. By the time we returned to the hotel our total was around 25 new species - worth every bit of the sleep we had missed and there was still time for a beer, a shower and dinner before we were transferred to the airport for the overnight flight to San Jose.

Our next opportunity to see California's birds was on our return from Costa Rica 18 wonderful days later. At LA airport we said our farewells to the BOCA contingent and to our ever enthusiastic and knowledgeable leader, Chris Doughty, and we set forth to collect our hire car and find our way around southern California. We were foot-loose and fancy-free, without a set itinerary but with 11 days to seek out birds and see the scenery.

The drive from Inglewood, where we collected the car, was somewhat eventful, especially when we went into a service station to ask directions and found that the attendant a) could not speak English, and b) could not show us our current location on the LA map. Off we went to find our own way to the coast and eventually we arrived at Sunset Beach, more or less where we wanted to be. So we booked into a motel, found a cosy Italian restaurant for dinner and resolved that we would always find a motel before dark. Ah, the dreams people have!!

Although there was laundry waiting to be done, when the next morning was clear and sunny we forgot our responsibilities and went directly to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve just down the road at Huntington Beach. This Reserve is regarded as one of the best birding spots in Southern California. It covers 1,350 acres, contains a huge coastal saltmarsh, vast areas of vegetation and several fully functioning oil wells, which somewhat surprised us when we drove into the car park.

However, Bolsa Chica is a haven for many species of aquatic fauna, endangered flora, resident and migratory birds, and in the breeding season many species nest on the islands within the marshes. But this was winter - the prime time for ducks and water birds.

On this particular morning there were plenty of birds to identify and the name of the game was to deal with each one separately and not be distracted by the others. Binoculars, scope, book; backwards and forwards we went. Of course, most water birds are relatively easy to identify as they stay put and give one the opportunity to view them properly but the optics and the book were given a good work-out that morning.

Several hours later we welcomed the interruption by a local birder. He told us a great deal about the area and its history and, more importantly, he lead us to a delightful Mexican restaurant where, not having had any breakfast, we welcomed an early lunch and then back to the birds. By days end we had identified 53 species and nominated the Burrowing Owl as Bird of the Day (BoD).

The following morning was spent around Huntington Beach Pier and Huntington State Park. This area is definitely the surfing capital of the coast and it seems mandatory that all surfers have, not only a surf-board and wet-suit, but also the biggest 4WD vehicle for the short drive from their condominium to the beach. But without exception, they were friendly and very interested to know what we were looking for. Most thought whales or porpoises and were quite surprised to realise we were looking at the birds.

Later in the day, we went to Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, another great place for waders, shore-birds and water fowl. Black Skimmer, one of the last birds we saw before the sun slipped below the horizon, was nominated BoD and for the third day in succession we found our motel after dark in what must be the cultural capital of the coast, Laguna Beach.

This is a resort town dominated by antique shops, art galleries, health and beauty parlours, and a great selection of restaurants. Our motel was at Crescent Bay on the northern end of town, where exquisite homes line the cliff top and overlook the Pacific Ocean and Seal Rock, an out-crop about 200 metres off-shore. Early the next morning we checked out the shore line and found the Rock true to its name, for there were many fur-seals plus numerous gulls, cormorants and pelicans roosting there and porpoises could also be seen as they leapt from the water. On the rocks below the cliffs waders were waking to another day of clear skies and bright sunshine. As we watched them we realised that among the Willits, Ruddy Turnstones and Wimbrels were about 20 Surfbirds, definitely the BoD.

Later that morning we visited Crystal Cove State Park, a reserve where Greater Roadrunner is common but, because it was Sunday, there were too many people out for a weekly stroll, so we travelled south to San Diego and more or less put our birdwatching on hold for a few days while we visited the world famous Zoo and crossed over the border to Tijuana in Mexico. We did visit several birding areas around San Diego and found the beaches to be a good place to confront gull identification again. The huge flocks of birds along these shore-lines are quite astounding.

On Wednesday, 22 December we left San Diego and headed inland towards Salton Sea. The route we travelled took us through Anza-Borrego State Park with its coniferous covered mountains which looked very attractive but when we stopped the cold wind sent us back to the car in double quick time. We had left the sophisticated coast for the more rustic rural areas, had climbed from sea level to 4,000 feet in a couple of hours and were now in an area where snow often falls but this year Southern California was experiencing a warm, dry winter. How lucky we were to have struck such wonderful weather.

One stop did prove to be productive because in just a few minutes we saw Horned Lark, Mountain Bluebird, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Kestrel, White-tailed Kite, Lewisís Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco and White-breasted Nuthatch. Unfortunately, we had to keep moving and even so it was long after dark when we reached Brawley and found a motel.

The next morning our first bird was Gila Woodpecker in the motel garden which augured well for a great day. Brawley and Westmorland are not attractive towns and the countryside is flat and arid but much of it is irrigated with underground water giving rise to a rich agricultural area where a wide variety of vegetables and grains are grown. As we drove back towards the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge we saw hundreds of White-faced Ibis, Canada and Snow Geese, and many ducks on the cultivated lands.

Salton Sea is about 200 feet below sea level, has a maximum depth of 50 feet and covers over 380 square miles. Water in the Sea comes from run-off from the surrounding mountains and agricultural lands and there is no outlet so water is lost only by evaporation. We were there in winter and it was quite warm but the surrounding desert indicates that the summers must be very hot.

The brochures claim that three million birds use Salton Sea each year and as we approached the ponds and saw the vast numbers we would not dispute that claim and later in the morning when the Park Rangers revved up the motor of their boat it seemed that all three million birds were in the air above us.

After a week in California we were quite familiar with many of the water-fowl and even waders were easy to identify but there were still many new birds to identify such as Snow Geese, Canada Geese, American White Pelicans and swallows. Greater Roadrunner gave us fleeting but not satisfying views so it remained on our list of must see.

We looked for the rare Yellow-footed Gull at every stop along the western shoreline but without success and our plan was to explore the eastern side the following day, but when we arrived in Salton City we changed our minds. We expected it to be a bigger more modern town but were disappointed by its forlorn appearance, abandoned housing estates and the one lone golfer hitting three balls around in the sand was nearly enough to send us all the way back to Canberra. Scenes from an old movie "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" came back to me and we decided to continue our journey northwards towards Palm Springs.

Palm Springs lies in the middle of a valley which is essentially desert but has been transformed into an oasis by the use of underground water and many hundreds of windmills generate power. Of course, the rich and famous live here in opulent dwellings and we soon realised the accommodation available for tourists was out of our price range so we back-tracked to Indio for the night. Yes, late again but plenty of restaurants to chose from.

The following morning, as we toured Palm Springs and the surrounding countryside we happened upon an area owned and operated by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians. The mountains looked bare and uninteresting but they are covered with many species of cactus and the canyons contain beautiful palm trees. We spent several hours walking the trails along Palm Canyon and saw Scott's Oriole, Northern Mockingbird, Hutton's Vireo, Marsh Wren and the wonderfully named Phainopepla within the canyon.

Later in the day we travelled up another valley to the lower platform of the Palm Springs cable car. At 4,000 feet the view extended along the valley for many miles. We didnít take the ride up to 8,000 feet but where told that the mountains are usually covered with snow and that many people ski there. This year, they said, was warmer and no snow had fallen.

Our guide book described many parks and reserves in the vicinity of Palm Springs but time was running out so we selected San Jacinto Wildlife Area, a restored remnant of the once much larger wetlands of the San Jacinto Valley where we would spend Christmas Day and then we planned to go north to Morro Bay.

So it was that on Christmas morning we had an early breakfast (what luxury) and headed for San Jacinto. Not surprising we were the only people there which was fortunate because every road had at least 20 cms. of dust on the surface and most of the day was spent driving between the various ponds and walking tracks. Our best birds for the day were two Greater Roadrunners seen perfectly through the telescope as they foraged in the dust around the park buildings but the BoD was the Vermilion Flycatcher, very appropriate to see this bright scarlet and black bird on Christmas Day.

That afternoon we drove as far north as Bakersfield where we found a motel before dark but we could not find a restaurant open so had to settle for a bottle of wine, some cheese and biscuits and a tin of sardines, all purchased at a service station, for our Christmas dinner. Bakersfield is surrounded by oil wells and in some areas there are whole paddocks filled with them and many pipe-lines crossing the countryside. It is also boasts a large U.S. military airbase.

Our target spot for 26 December was the Carrizo Plain Natural Area which lies in the California Valley with the San Andreas Fault running through its centre. The valley usually contains a vast wetland but this year a dazzling white salt-pan filled the area and only a few ponds remained along the creek bed. The Ranger told us that normally there would be Sandhill Cranes, raptors and waders in the valley but this year was quieter. However, we saw Californian and Le Conte's Thrasher, Prairie Falcon and a Burrowing Owl at very close range. A couple of coyotes sauntered nonchalantly across the plain unaware of our prying telescope and a hare and many squirrels were seen. Hunting is not permitted in the valley but we thought one family, in their 4WD pick-up with a Rottweiler on the back, may have had other plans had we not been there.

From Carrizo Plain we drove towards the coast and, taking note of our guide book, we kept our eyes open for Yellow-billed Magpie along Calif. 58. Sure enough we spotted 3 on the roadway and were doubly rewarded for we also saw Acorn Woodpeckers in the oaks beside the road.

Our final morning was spent at Morro Bay where we added Canyon Wren, Osprey and Pacific Loon to our list but there were many thousands of birds around the shoreline. In the afternoon we travelled south along the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles for our return flight to Sydney and Canberra.

We left California with mixed feelings: sorry to leave but pleased to go home. We had enjoyed 11 perfect days, seen about 150 species, probably missed many more, but that leaves us with a reason to return to California in the future.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

click here for more info on North American Field Guides

Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Third Edition, 1987, National Geographic, Washington, D.C..

Guide to Birdwatching Sites Western U.S., 1999, Mel White, National Geographic, Washington, D.C..

Hazel and Allan Wright
PO Box 1418
Wden ACT 2606


TRIP LIST

Pacific Loon

Common Loon

Horned Grebe

Eared Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Clarkís Grebe

Western Grebe

American White Pelican

Long-billed Dowitcher Common Snipe

Heermannís Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Mew Gull

California Gull

Herring Gull

Western Gull

Caspian Tern

Forsterís Tern

Black Skimmer

Band-tailed Pigeon

Rock Dove

Mourning Dove

Greater Roadrunner Burrowing Owl

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Costa's Hummingbird Anna's Hummingbird

Allenís Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Acorn Woodpecker

Lewis' Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Vermilion Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Logger-head Shrike

Huttonís Vireo

Stellaís Jay

Western Scrub-Jay

Yellow-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

White-breasted Nuthatch

Cactus Wren

Canyon Wren

Marsh Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Western Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

American Robin

Northern Mockingbird

Bendire's Thrasher

Le Conte's Thrasher

European Starling

American Pipit

Cedar Waxwing

Phainopepla

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Californian Towhee

Abert's Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Black-throated Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Black-headed Grosbeak

Western Meadowlark

Red-winged Blackbird

Tri-coloured Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Scott's Oriole

House Finch

House Sparrow


Long-billed Dowitcher
Common Snipe

Heermann's Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Mew Gull

California Gull

Herring Gull

Western Gull

Caspian Tern

Forster's Tern

Black Skimmer

Band-tailed Pigeon

Rock Dove

Mourning Dove

Greater Roadrunner
Burrowing Owl

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Costa's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Acorn Woodpecker

Lewis' Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Vermilion Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Logger-head Shrike

Huttonís Vireo

Stellaís Jay

Western Scrub-Jay

Yellow-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Nth Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

White-breasted Nuthatch

Cactus Wren

Canyon Wren

Marsh Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Western Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

American Robin

Northern Mockingbird

Bendireís Thrasher

Le Conte's Thrasher

European Starling

American Pipit

Cedar Waxwing

Phainopepla

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Californian Towhee

Albertís Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Black-throated Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Black-headed Grosbeak

Western Meadowlark

Red-winged Blackbird

Tri-coloured Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Scott's Oriole

House Finch

House Sparrow