SOUTHERN and CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
3-10 October 2006
Leader: Michael Retter
For birders working on an ABA list, a trip to California is a must. This private tour targeted regional specialties like California Thrasher and Wrentit while also concentrating on pelagic trips. We passed through a variety of different habitats, including two very different deserts. In the cooler, high-elevation Mojave Desert, we found highly-prized and hard-to-find species like LeConte’s Thrasher and Sage Sparrow. The hot Colorado Desert hosted birds like Gila Woodpecker and Ruddy Ground-Dove. Between birding the deserts, we crossed mountains covered in tall pine forests and low oak and manzanita scrub. A special trip to Santa Cruz Island produced the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the tour was the time spent on the ocean: we found a wide variety of pelagic species, like Black-vented Shearwater, Black-footed Albatross, South Polar Skua, and Flesh-footed Shearwater.
3 Oct: We arrived midday at John Wayne airport in Santa Anna (Orange County), and it was straight off to the first birding location!
We hoped to find California Gnatcatcher nearby without too much difficulty. We weren’t at the location for 10 minutes before we had a very inquisitive female come within a few meters to check us out. She was later joined by a male, which in the fall and winter doesn’t look much different from a female. We got great looks at a California Thrasher close by, singing away from the top of a tree. California Towhees were quite literally everywhere, constantly feeding on the road. We also noted Song Sparrow, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, and (heard only) Wrentit here. We watched a pair of White-tailed Kites forage over the hillside a bit inland, providing us with our first views of what would prove to be an almost constant companion on this trip.
Next, we stopped at Upper Newport Bay. Belding’s [Savannah] Sparrow was quite common: at one point we had 15 birds in view. “Light-footed” Clapper Rail was also present. We went to a location that is often frequented by terns, hoping to find Elegant Tern, but the mudflats seemed to be nonexistent. We did however find a large concentration of shorebirds coming in to roost on an island just off the side of the road. It was mostly made up of Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, “Western” Willets, and Long-billed Dowitchers, but there were some yellowlegs and a Dunlin mixed in. A fellow birder told us that a Ruff had been seen there earlier in the day, but we didn’t find it. Unfortunately we found only a few distant Common/Forster’s Terns, so it was on to the next spot.
Huntington Beach Central Park is a famous migrant trap, so always worth a look. It was getting late, but we did find a pair of Cinnamon Teal. Townsend’s, Hermit, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers played in the treetops.
At dusk we stopped by Bolsa Chica. We got distant looks at an Elegant Tern, and found a large flock of Western and California Gulls. There were lots of “Western” Willets and some Black-bellied Plovers as well.
4 Oct: Today was a non-birding sightseeing day in the Hollywood area, but we did manage to find some Western Scrub-Jays and a Vaux’s Swift.
5 Oct: We drove north towards Mount Pinos today, hoping to find White-headed Woodpecker. Before we left the neighborhood of our hotel, we found a small flock of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, which proved to not be too uncommon.
We made it to the base of the Mt. Pinos road, only to find out that a very recent fire had recently forced a ban on all traffic off the main highway. Talk about a bummer. We messed around for a bit, trying to find other roads to higher elevations, but they were all closed. We ended up birding the grounds of a forest service station, and got great looks at Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, and “Oregon” Junco. We were walking up the drive to inquire about other roads when a young man in a forest service truck stopped to see if we needed help. We asked him if he knew where to find White-headed Woodpeckers, and he shot back a rather confused look. At just that moment a male White-headed Woodpecker flew across the road behind the truck and landed in a small dead tree only 10 meters away. We had amazing looks at the bird for about 10 minutes before it continued on. We couldn’t believe our luck!
Since these particular mountains were closed, we decided to drive east, into the Piute Mountains. We’d not planned to stop along the way, but driving through the upper reaches of Jawbone Canyon, a LeConte’s Thrasher ran across the road in front of us. How can you not stop for that?! Though diversity there was poor, quality was superb. We had AMAZING looks at both LeConte’s Thrasher (at least 4 birds) and canescens Sage Sparrow. We also saw Cactus Wren there and heard some Chukars on the hillside.
A stop an a famous oasis, Butterbredt Spring, proved a total bust, but a bit further up we entered a high-elevation grassland that was teeming with Ferruginous Hawks. We saw 6-7 over a 1.5 mile stretch, including prolonged looks at a beautiful dark morph.
From here we started getting into coniferous woods. One of our main targets was “Thick-billed” Fox-Sparrow, and I figured this was our best shot. It was getting late though, and we had to turn around. As we rounded a corner I saw two very large chicken-like birds jump out of the road up onto the bank. “WOW,” I thought, “those looked like grouse!” We’d just been talking about the newly-split Sooty Grouse, so I had grouse on the mind. We pulled up to the spot, and were enthralled by what we found. We were looking at a group of 6 GORGEOUS Mountain Quail. I’m told that my voice went “eerily low and sounded like the cello section in the opening of Act IV of Verdi‘s Otello.” In other words, I was ecstatic! We watched the birds for a few minutes and ended up splitting up; I tried to go up and around them and push them back towards the others, but it didn’t work too well! And of course, while I was messing around, the others saw Thick-billed Fox-Sparrow. Just my luck, but great for everyone else.
By this time it was getting fairly dark, and we had a long drive ahead of us, south and west. Driving down out of the mountains we were fortunate enough to have numerous Common Poorwills on the road. We got within a few feet of a couple of them! We spent the night in Santa Barbara.
6 Oct: This was the first of three pelagic trips we took, and by far the most successful and pleasant. Temperatures were relatively warm, the sky was overcast the entire day, and the birds were great. Living in landlocked Illinois, I was looking forward to the pelagics quite a bit. Jaegers stole the show today. Totals were ~300 Pomarines, ~35 Long-taileds, ~5 Parasitics, and ~12 South Polar Skuas! It seemed like there was always a Pom in view, and more often than not, a few at a time. Black-vented Shearwater was the first tubenose of the day. We watched a couple Black Storm-Petrels, and then sometime in the afternoon, we got great looks at an Ashy Storm-Petrel. The captain chased it for a few minutes and got very close to the bird. It was challenging to see through the bumps, but the looks were still great. We also had great looks at Arctic Tern, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, and Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. On the way back into the harbor, we had superb views of an Elegant Tern perched atop a buoy. A Long-billed Curlew on a sandbar as we pulled into the harbor was a crowd favorite. Nearby the dock, we discovered a Tropical Kingbird, a rare but curiously regular visitor to the West Coast in fall. After dinner we drove north across the beautifully moonlit mountains to Maricopa, where we spent the night.
7 Oct: A quick trip outside of town in the morning yielded more LeConte’s Thrashers and Sage Sparrows. We then drove east into the San Joaquin Valley, and thus, saw our first Yellow-billed Magpie of the trip. We birded the Santa Maria area for a while, hoping to find a Pacific Golden-Plover, but no dice. A quick stop at a small state park did however yield nice looks at a “Pacific-slope” Flycatcher and a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the latter at the far southern edge of its range. We then drove north through San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles before turning east. We stopped at a couple spots for Bell’s Sparrow and Lawrence’s Goldfinch, but dipped. A pair of California Thrashers flew back and forth across the road, making very odd sounds all the while. We did get very nice, yet distant looks at a Wrentit, enough to see the white eye. We also noted Hutton’s Vireo and Oak Titmouse there. A large (~125) flock of ridiculous-looking California Quail alongside the road kept us entertained for a few minutes. Our next stop was at a park in Shannon, just west of Cholame. We’d been told about Larry’s Goldfinches there, but we only found a couple Lessers. There was a big flock of migrant passerines present—mostly Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Audubon’s and Orange-crowned Warblers. But there was also a gorgeous male Black-throated Gray Warbler, and we easterners loved every moment of it. Then it was north to Monterey for an early turn-in, in anticipation of the next day’s pelagic.
8 Oct: Before we got out of the harbor, we watched a lingering female Harlequin Duck and a Clark’s Grebe. Early on the trip, some of us were was lucky enough to get a look at a Manx Shearwater before it flew directly away from the boat into the sun. We had incredible looks at Black-footed Albatross and Buller’s Shearwater, but then my first experience with mal de mer kicked in. The seas were 13-15 feet, we were headed into the wind and not on a catamaran, so I suppose if I had to get seasick sometime, this would be it. Somehow, between rounds 2 and 3 of draped-over-the-stern heaving, I actually managed to spot the bird of the day, a gorgeous Flesh-footed Shearwater. Ashy Storm-Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Sabine’s Gull, and South Polar Skua (easily a half a dozen) were the other highlights.
Immediately after we got back to shore, we made a big decision. We drove southeast, to spend the night in Bakersfield. Along the way, we had brief views of a few Lawrence’s Goldfinches as they flew over a gas station parking lot. One in Bakersfield we ate at Benji’s, a Basque restaurant, where the food was excellent. I had tongue and sweetbreads for the first time, and they were both very tasty! Why did we drive to Bakersfield you ask? Well, just see where we ended up the next day . . .
9 Oct: I knew of some Spotted Doves in Bakersfield, and after some work we finally found one near Beale Park. The noisy Rose-ringed Parakeets were much easier to find.
Then we headed south—to the Salton Sea. Crazy? Perhaps. But it ended up being worth it. We stopped in Indio and bought some delicious dates--at the gas station! The Indio area is the US’s main date-producing region, so we just had to try a few.
The reason we drove all this way was for a shot at Blue-footed Booby. The hurricanes of a month or two prior had pushed up to 5 of them onto the Sea, and there was at least one still hanging around. We spent a couple hours trying to find a point to access the Sea and view the rock (Mullet Island) the booby supposedly roosted on. In the process stumbled across a small flock of Lesser Flamingos and at least one Roseate Spoonbill. The heat waves were just too bad to view the island, so we dicided to come back later in the day. We did however get great looks at a few Yellow-footed Gulls, including one that flew right over the car. We also found a Willow Flycatcher, a species facing possible extirpation from the Southwest.
We decided to go look for Ruddy Ground-Dove at an old hog farm. On the way we found a Prairie Falcon and had nice views of its diagnostic dark wingpits. It took quite a while, but we eventually got a look at one. We found a couple more Larry’s Goldfinches here as well, providing better looks at these beautiful little Californian endemics than we had yesterday.
Back at the booby spot, we eventually prevailed. The booby was very distant, but it was a Blue-footed Booby, either a lifer or an ABA bird for everyone!
We then spent an hour or more fruitlessly searching “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow. Water levels were down, so there was no vegetation close to the waters edge and therefore, no adequate habitat anywhere. We left feeling somewhat defeated but also pretty pleased with what we’d accomplished for the day: We did saw thousands of other water- and shorebirds and a Burrowing Owl, after all. Thus began our 3.5 hour drive to Ventura.
10 Oct: This morning we headed out to Santa Cruz Island. On the way, we had amazing looks at a juvie Sabine’s Gull, surely one of the most beautiful gulls in the world. We also came across a flock of a few thousand Black-vented Shearwaters, which made for good studies of plumage variation in this variable species that seems to be especially prone to leucism.
Right off the dock, some of us glimpsed what was almost certainly the sedentarius subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird. The jays were a bit skittish, undoubtedly due to the people roaming about the island, but we eventually got very good looks at Island Scrub-Jay—found nowhere else in the world but this island! On the rocks around the island we had really nice looks at Black Oystercatcher and Black Turnstone.
We birded the same waters as the trip four days prior, and the difference in birdlife was amazing. We saw perhaps 50x as many Black-vented Shearwaters, but no storm-petrels and only about 5 jaegers total!
Back ashore, we got a tip about a Pacific Golden-Plover found earlier in the day at a sod farm. After a bit of work, we had some prolonged (30-40 minute) views of the bird feeding in a flock of Black-bellieds. This allowed us to discuss the finer points of the ID of this somewhat tricky species.
Our last bit of birding was at Big Sycamore Canyon, part of Pt. Mugu State Park. Though we only birded here perhaps an hour, it proved to be one of my favorite stops of the entire trip. We got incredible views of Nuttall’s Woodpecker (drumming and calling, too), Wrentit, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Golden-crowned Sparrow mere feet away. A special moment for me was watching a Wrentit only 4 feet away as it would fly up and grab a little white berry that perfectly matched its ivory-colored eye! We ended the evening with a surprise: a pair of Black-hooded Parakeets that came screeching down the canyon. After enjoying some delicious German food at Old Vienna Restaurant in Ventura, we spent the night in Oxnard.
SELECTED SPECIES LIST
Underlined – Landbirds endemic to the Pacific Coast area, from British Columbia to Baja California. Seabirds endemic to Pacific waters between Washington and the Gulf of California.
(C) – endemic to Californian chaparral and/or adjacent habitats, some as far north as Oregon, some as far south as Baja California.
Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera
A pair found at Huntington Beach Central Park along with Blue- and Green-winged Teal and Ruddy Ducks.
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
A female inside Monterey Bay at the beginning of our pelagic.
Mountain Quail Oreortyx pictus
Six stunningly beautiful birds along the road in the Piute Mountains.
California Quail Callipepla californica
Common. A flock of ~125 animated birds was particularly memorable.
Gambel’s Quail Callipepla gambelii
A small covey near the Salton Sea.
Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis
A few from nearshores waters on pelagics.
Clark’s Grebe Aechmophorus clarkii
One inside Santa Barbara harbor.
Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes
Incredible looks at about two dozen on the Monterey pelagic, including one very pale individual.
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
Small numbers on all three pelagics.
Pink-footed Shearwater Puffinus creatopus
Common on the Santa Barbara and Monterey pelagics.
Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes
One spectacular individual that passed close by on the Monterey pelagic.
Buller’s Shearwater Puffinus bulleri
Abundant on the Monterey Pelagic.
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus
Uncommon on the Santa Barbara and Monterey pelagics.
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus
One bird glimpsed briefly inside Monterey Bay at the beginning of the pelagic.
Black-vented Shearwater Puffinus opisthomela
Common on the Santa Barbara pelagic and abundant on the Ventura pelagic.
Ashy Storm-Petrel (C) Oceanodroma homochroa
Small numbers on the Santa Barbara and Monterey pelagics.
Black Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma melania
Small numbers on the Santa Barbara and Monterey pelagics.
Brandt’s Cormorant Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Common on all three pelagics.
Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus
Uncommon on all three pelagics.
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
At least one at the Salton Sea, where it’s very rare.
Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor
About a dozen escaped birds at the Salton Sea.
White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus
Common in all lowland habitats.
Ferruginous Hawk Buteo regalis
6 or 7 birds near the Piute Mts., including a memorable dark morph.
Prairie Falcon Falco mexicanus
Nice views of a single bird at the Salton Sea.
“Light-footed” Clapper Railn (C) Rallus longirostris levipes
One bird heard at Upper Newport Bay.
Pacific Golden-Plover Pluvialis fulva
One juvenile with about 30 Black-bellies near Ventura.
Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
A couple dozen seen on rocks around Santa Cruz island.
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
Common at the Salton Sea.
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus
A dozen seen in Upper Newport Bay. Another seen on a sandbar at the end of the Santa Barbara pelagic.
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa
30 or 40 seen in Upper Newport Bay.
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Common on all pelagics.
Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius
A few seen on the Santa Barbara pelagic.
Heermann’s Gull Larus heermanni
This gorgeous West Coast endemic was commonly found on the coast and on the pelagics.
California Gull Larus californicus
Commonly seen at most wetland/ocean habitats.
Yellow-footed Gull Larus livens
We saw about 20 of this Gulf of California endemic at the Salton Sea.
Western Gull Larus occidentalis
Common on the coast and on the pelagics.
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
A few seen at Salton Sea.
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
Small numbers seen on the Santa Barbara pelagic.
Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans
A dozen or so noted on the Santa Barbara pelagic, and a single bird seen at Bolsa Chica.
South Polar Skua Stercorarius maccormicki
At least a dozen on the Santa Barbara pelagic, including incredible looks at birds on the water and in flight directly over the boat. A half a dozen more on the Monterey pelagic.
Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus
~300 on the Santa Barbara pelagic, lesser numbers on the other two.
Parasitic Jaeger Stercorarius parasiticus
5 or so on the Santa Barbara pelagic, 3 or 4 on the Monterey pelagic.
Long-tailed Jaeger Stercorarius longicaudus
Remarkably, ~35 on the late date of 6 Oct on the Santa Barbara pelagic. 2 on the Monterey pelagic.
Common Murre Uria aalge
Fair numbers on the Monterrey and Ventura pelagics.
Pigeon Guillemot Cepphus columba
Small number found on inshore waters on all pelagic trips.
Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata
Common on all pelagics.
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis
Two adults and a juvenile in Bakersfield.
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
Common near Salton Sea.
Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti
A single bird near the Salton Sea.
Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
~40 in Bakersfield.
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet Brotogeris chiriri
Locally common in the Hollywood area.
Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus
Small numbers seen in desert areas between Bakersfield and Salton Sea. Also noted near Mojave.
Common Poorwill Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
Remarkably common in the Piute Mtn. foothills, with up to 10 birds seen in the road, including one that allowed approach within mere feet!
Vaux’s Swift Chaetura vauxi
Close-up views of one migrant bird near Hollywood.
Anna’s Hummingbird Calypte anna
Amazingly close views of a 3 birds feeding on flowers at Big Sycamore Canyon. A few others seen briefly throughout tour.
Allen’s Hummingbird Selasphorus sasin
One bird, probably of the sedentarius subspecies, on Santa Cruz Island.
Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus
This comical-looking bird is common in wooded habitats, especially in oak.
Gila Woodpecker Melanerpes uropygialis
A couple birds near Salton Sea.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Picoides scalaris
Small numbers in desert habitat.
Nuttall’s Woodpecker (C) Picoides nuttallii
Very nice views of a few at Big Sycamore Canyon.
White-headed Woodpecker Picoides albolarvatus
Stunning views of a gorgeous male near Mt. Pinos.
“Pacific-slope” Flycatcher Empidonax difficilis
One cooperative bird near Santa Maria.
Black Phoebe Sayornis nigricans
Very common in habitated areas.
Willow Flycatcher Empidonax traillii
One bird in willows at the Salton Sea.
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus
One bird in a marsh near Santa Barbara.
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus
Small numbers in all open habitats.
Hutton’s Vireo Vireo huttoni
Common in oak woodland.
Steller’s Jay Cyanocitta stelleri
Uncommon in high-elevation pine forest neat Mt. Pinos and in the Piute Mts.
Island Scrub-Jay (C) Aphelocoma insularis
Leisurely looks at a family group on Santa Cruz Island, where it is endemic.
“California” Western Scrub-Jay Aphelocoma californica californica
Common in oak woodland and in habitated areas.
Yellow-billed Magpie (C) Pica nuttalli
Small numbers in the Central Valley. Many allowed close-up views from the roadside. Found only in California.
Violet-green Swallow Tachycineta thalassina
Small numbers in wooded areas.
Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli
Small numbers in highland coniferous forest.
“Southern” Chestnut-backed Chickadee (C) Poecile rufescens barlowi
One bird of the southern race (lacking rufous flanks) near Santa Maria.
Oak Titmouse (C) Baeolophus inornatus
Common in oak woodland.
Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus
Abundant in scrubby habitats.
Pygmy Nuthatch Sitta pygmaea
A few seen in high elevation pine forest.
Bewick’s Wren Thryomanes bewickii
Ubiquitous in most low- to mid-elevation habitats.
Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicappilus
A single bird seen in Jawbone Canyon.
California Gnatcatcher (C) Polioptila californica
A close, cooperative bird in Orange County.
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Polioptila melanura
A few seen near Salton Sea.
Western Bluebird Sialia mexicana
Abundant in high-elevation conifer forest.
Wrentit (C) Chamaea fasciata
Small numbers seen routinely in chaparral habitat. The only member of the babbler family in the New World.
California Thrasher (C) Toxostoma redivivum
Widespread but in small numbers in chaparral. Particularly nice looks were had in Orange County.
LeConte’s Thrasher Toxostoma lecontei
3-4 birds in Jawbone Canyon. Another couple near Maricopa.
Phainopepla Phainopepla nitens
Flyovers at a couple locations.
Black-throated Gray Warbler Dendroica nigriscens
One individual near Cholame.
Townsend’s Warbler Dendroica townsendi
Small numbers seen in many locations.
Hermit Warbler Dendroica occidentalis
One bird at Huntington Beach Central Park.
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana
A few birds seen in various locations.
California Towhee (C) Piplio crissalis
Remarkably abundant in chaparral.
Sage Sparrow Amphispiza belli canescens
A pair each in Jawbone Canyon and near Maricopa.
“Belding’s” Savannah Sparrow (C) Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi
Abundant at Upper Newport Bay.
“Thick-billed” Fox-Sparrow (C) Passerella iliaca megarhyncha group
One bird in the Piute Mts.
Golden-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia atricapilla
A handful at Big Sycamore Canyon.
“Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis oreganus
Small numbers in wet, scrubby habitats.
“Bicolored” Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus gubernator
A few dozen south of Cholame.
Tricolored Blackbird (C) Agelaius tricolor
3 birds mixed in with the above Bicoloreds.
Lawrence’s Goldfinch (C) Carduelis lawrencei
A small flock flew over near Monterey. Two more were seen near Salton Sea.