Also see the PHOTO GALLERY following the 2017 summary.



April 22 - May 1, 2017

Well, I do have to admit I had doubts during the first few days of this MBWeek that it would turn out better than our January California trips – but after a few more days it became obvious that my initial impression was misguided. Although this trip had never been on the MBW schedule before, and though I had never birded California in spring or visited several of the places on the itinerary, we managed to come up with an impressive list of birds.

In all, we had a respectable total of 221 species (plus one non-countable "white starling"), with an even 100 of these "non-Minnesota" species. By comparison, our January MBWeeks average just under 200 – indeed, note on the list below how many species are marked with an asterisk as being rarer or absent in January. Noteworthy as well is at least five of the birds we saw are strong candidates as future splits: i.e., Willet, Warbling Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-rumped Warbler – along with some of those Santa Cruz Island endemic subspecies.  

With so many birds on our list, it's a challenge to narrow these down into a summary of our most significant highlights. But one place to start is to mention the White Wagtail and Island Scrub-Jay. The wagtail is only Accidental in California, and we were fortunate enough to be in town on the day it showed up on the low-tide mudflats in the San Diego River. On the other hand, the endemic scrub-jay is typically not much of a challenge to find on Santa Cruz Island. But what both have in common is that they represented new additions my life list (at best, I now only manage to see one lifer every year or two), and more significantly they were new additions to the composite MBW list: #707 and 708.

Especially memorable as well was the day we left San Diego when we spent the morning along Kitchen Creek and then visited Jacumba and Fig Lagoon. Our morning highlights included heard-only Mountain Quail (always difficult to see in spring), nice views of a close Gray Vireo, and our best looks at Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned sparrows. Next, in the odd little community of Jacumba, we studied its colony of nesting Tricolored Blackbirds and were surprised by a migrant Hermit Warbler. And we finished the day at Fig Lagoon where a quite unexpected assortment of water birds appeared: a group of 200+ Brant, 21 Common Loons, a Red-throated Loon, and Red-breasted Merganser (all unusual this far from the coast); and as bonuses there were both Clark's and Western grebes, Neotropic Cormorants (rare in CA), and a Least Bittern.

The best highlight in and around the Salton Sea had to be the sub-adult Yellow-footed Gull we finally tracked down between Obsidean Butte and NWR headquarters. This species is hardly ever seen in the U.S. away from the Salton Sea, it is especially elusive in winter and spring, and we were almost distracted at the time by Lesser Nighthawks and Red Knots. We also found a nice assortment of migrants and other birds at the cemetery in Brawley, a Barn Owl roosting in a palm (Guy McCaskie, dean of California birders, found it for us), an abundance of Burrowing Owls, and I was impressed – even if no one else was! – by the tallest flagpole in the Western Hemisphere in below-sea-level Calipatria.

As we headed back west to the Pacific Coast, there was time for more productive birding stops during the next few days. Especially good was Yucca Valley and vicinity, where LeConte's Thrasher was surprisingly easy to find, and where we turned up Lawrence's Goldfinch and Scott's Oriole. Farther west in the San Gabriel Mountains was the Table Mountain-Grassy Hollow area where White-headed Woodpeckers, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, a partial albino Western Bluebird, and Cassin's Finches were all unexpectedly cooperative – indeed, all but that odd bluebird could be seen simultaneously!

Of course, our boat trip to Santa Cruz Island highlighted our coastal birding at the end of the MBWeek. Not only was the Island Scrub-Jay (found nowhere else in the world) waiting for us, but we also saw 8 of the 11 subspecies endemic to the island (see list below). And en route to or from the island were four species of alcid (especially Scripps's Murrelet) and three shearwaters (especially the Black-vented).    

You might think that there couldn't be much to add to all the highlights listed in the paragraphs above, but this summary of memorable birds would certainly be incomplete if it ended here. Especially noteworthy as well were: our luck with being at the right place at the right time as a California Condor drifted overhead by the Los Padres National Forest sign; the pair of California Gnatcatchers in an unremarkable patch of San Diego scrub; Yellow-billed Magpies found more easily than expected at a few sites between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara; the other California specialties such as Ridgway's Rail, Wrentit, California's Scrub-Jay and Thrasher and Towhee, and Bell's Sparrow – and even those Scaly-breasted Munias at Tecolote and Lake Los Carneros deserve honorable mention.  


April 22. Arrival in San Diego by 3:30pm; Sunset Cliffs Blvd and Robb Field/San Diego River; first of 2 nights in Chula Vista.

April 23. La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Reserve, return to Robb Field (for the wagtail), Malcom X library gnatcatcher patch, Fashion Valley Mall area, Tecolote Nature Center, J Street and 7th Street mudflats, and Tijuana Estuary NWR.

April 24. Kitchen Creek Road/Pacific Crest Trail/Cibbets Flat, Jacumba, and Fig Lagoon; first of 2 nights in El Centro.

April 25. Carter & Fites Rds thrasher spot (allegedly), Cattle Call Park, Willard St hummingbirds, Brawley cemetery, and Salton Sea (Poe/Vendel Rds, Sonny Bono NWR HQ, Obsidean Butte, the Seawall).

April 26. Return to Brawley cemetery, the Seawall (via The Flagpole), Obsidean Butte, and NWR HQ; afternoon drive to Yucca Valley via Wister State Area and Salton Sea State Area HQ, and evening thrasher spot on Olympia Rd; night in Yucca Valley.

April 27. Black Rock Canyon campground, Big Morongo Canyon, Mojave Narrows Park, and Table Mountain-Grassy Hollow area; unexpected night in Lancaster.  

April 28. 60th Street & Avenue B sparrow spot, and Hudson Ranch Rd/Mil Potrero Rd/ Mt Piños; night in Santa Maria.  

April 29. Guadalupe Dunes Park, Los Alamos, Alisal and Refugio roads, and Goleta (Goleta Beach, Campus Point, Devereux Slough, Coal Oil Point); first of 2 nights in Santa Barbara.  

April 30. Island Packers boat trip to Santa Cruz Island.

May 1. Final morning at Coronado Drive eucalyptus grove, Lake Los Carneros, and Devereux Slough; afternoon (plus 2 early morning) departures for home.

Bird List

boldfaced species = casual, accidental, or absent in Minnesota

• species marked with an asterisk (*) = generally absent or harder to find in January

• species marked SCI endemic = endemic Santa Cruz Island subspecies


Canada Goose

(Mute Swan / non-countable exotic)

Wood Duck


American Wigeon


Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal


Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Surf Scoter


Red-breasted Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Mountain Quail * (heard-only)

California Quail

Gambel's Quail

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark's Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Common Ground-Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

Greater Roadrunner

Lesser Nighthawk *

Vaux's Swift *

White-throated Swift *

Black-chinned Hummingbird *

Anna's Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird (incl. SCI endemic)

Ridgway's Rail

Virginia Rail (heard-only)


American Coot

Black-necked Stilt

American Avocet

Black Oystercatcher

Black-bellied Plover

Snowy Plover

Semipalmated Plover



Long-billed Curlew

Marbled Godwit

Black Turnstone (leader-only)

Red Knot




Least Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper

Short-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Wilson's Snipe

Spotted Sandpiper

Wandering Tattler

Greater Yellowlegs

Willet (potential split)

Wilson's Phalarope *

Red-necked Phalarope *

Common Murre *

Pigeon Guillemot *

Scripps's Murrelet *

Cassin's Auklet *

Bonaparte's Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Western Gull

Yellow-footed Gull

California Gull

Herring Gull

Least Tern *

Gull-billed Tern *

Caspian Tern

Common Tern * (leader-only)

Forster's Tern

Royal Tern

Elegant Tern *

Black Skimmer

Red-throated Loon

Pacific Loon

Common Loon

Sooty Shearwater *

Pink-footed Shearwater *

Black-vented Shearwater

Brandt's Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

American White Pelican

Brown Pelican

Least Bittern

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Little Blue Heron

Cattle Egret

Green Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

California Condor *


White-tailed Kite

Bald Eagle

Northern Harrier

Cooper's Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Swainson's Hawk *

Red-tailed Hawk

Barn Owl

Burrowing Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Nuttall's Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

Northern Flicker (incl. SCI endemic)

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee *

Pacific-slope Flycatcher * (incl. SCI endemic)

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Vermilion Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher *

Cassin's Kingbird

Western Kingbird *

Loggerhead Shrike

Gray Vireo *

Hutton's Vireo

Cassin's Vireo *

Warbling Vireo * (potential split)

Steller's Jay

Island Scrub-Jay *  

California Scrub-Jay

Yellow-billed Magpie *

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Purple Martin *

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow *

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Cliff Swallow *

Barn Swallow *

Mountain Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee *

Oak Titmouse



White-breasted Nuthatch (potential split)

Pygmy Nuthatch

Rock Wren

House Wren

Marsh Wren (potential split)

Bewick's Wren (incl. SCI endemic)

Cactus Wren

California Gnatcatcher

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Golden-crowned Kinglet


Western Bluebird

American Robin

California Thrasher

Le Conte's Thrasher *

Northern Mockingbird

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing


Scaly-breasted Munia

House Sparrow

White Wagtail *

American Pipit

House Finch (incl. SCI endemic)

Cassin's Finch

Lesser Goldfinch

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Orange-crowned Warbler (incl. SCI endemic)

Nashville Warbler *

Common Yellowthroat (heard-only)

Yellow Warbler *

Yellow-rumped Warbler (potential split)

Black-throated Gray Warbler *

Hermit Warbler *

Wilson's Warbler *

Yellow-breasted Chat *

Spotted Towhee (incl. SCI endemic)

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

California Towhee

Abert's Towhee

Black-chinned Sparrow *

Lark Sparrow

Bell's Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow (incl. SCI endemic)

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Western Tanager *

Black-headed Grosbeak *

Blue Grosbeak *

Lazuli Bunting *

Red-winged Blackbird

Trilcolored Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Brewer's Blackbird

Great-tailed Grackle

Bronzed Cowbird *

Brown-headed Cowbird

Hooded Oriole *

Bullock's Oriole *

Scott's Oriole *

Significant Others (a tentative & partial list):  


Santa Cruz Island Fox (endemic)

California Ground Squirrel

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel

Rock Squirrel

chipmunk, sp.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Desert Cottontail

Mule Deer

California Sea Lion

Harbor Seal

Common Dolphin

Gray Whale

Humpback Whale



Also see the photo gallery on the

Winter California & Arizona MBWeeks page

Santa Cruz Island Fox  ~  Santa Cruz I. (Doug Johnson photo)

Yellow-billed Magpie  ~  Los Alamos County Park (KRE photo)

Violet-green Swallow  ~  Los Alamos County Park (Dennis Randall photo)

Rock Wren  ~  Kitchen Creek Road (Doug Johnson photo)

female California Gnatcatcher  ~  Malcolm X Library, San Diego

(Dennis Randall photo)

LeConte's Thrasher  ~  Yucca Valley (Dennis Randall photo)

partial albino Western Bluebird  ~  Grassy Hollow Campground (KRE photo)

White Wagtail  ~  Robb Field, San Diego River (KRE photo)

Black-chinned Sparrow  ~  Kitchen Creek Road (KRE photo)

Tricolored Blackbird  ~  Jacumba (KRE photo)

Band-tailed Pigeon  ~  Grassy Hollow Campground (Dennis Randall photo)

Scott's Oriole  ~  Black Rock Canyon Campground (KRE photo)

Black Skimmer  ~  Robb Field, San Diego River (Dennis Randall photo)

Black-vented Shearwater  ~  passage to Santa Cruz Island

(Dennis Randall photo)

Scripps's Murrelet  ~  passage to Santa Cruz Island (Dennis Randall photo)

California Condor  ~  Hudson Ranch Road, Los Padres National Forest

(Dennis Randall photo)

White-headed Woodpecker  ~  Table Mountain (Dennis Randall photo)

Island Scrub-Jay  ~  Santa Cruz Island (Dennis Randall photo)

Pygmy Nuthatch  ~  Table Mountain (Dennis Randall photo)

Lawrence's Goldfinch  ~  Black Rock Canyon Campground

(Dennis Randall photo)

Common Dolphins  ~  passage to Santa Cruz Island (Dennis Randall photo)

Lesser Nighthawk  ~  Obsidean Butte (KRE photo)