* * *
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.
• 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
(Mute Swan / non-countable exotic)
Mountain Quail * (heard-only)
Lesser Nighthawk *
Vaux's Swift *
White-throated Swift *
Black-chinned Hummingbird *
Allen's Hummingbird (incl. SCI endemic)
Virginia Rail (heard-only)
Black Turnstone (leader-only)
Willet (potential split)
Wilson's Phalarope *
Red-necked Phalarope *
Common Murre *
Pigeon Guillemot *
Scripps's Murrelet *
Cassin's Auklet *
Least Tern *
Gull-billed Tern *
Common Tern * (leader-only)
Elegant Tern *
Sooty Shearwater *
Pink-footed Shearwater *
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
California Condor *
Swainson's Hawk *
Northern Flicker (incl. SCI endemic)
Western Wood-Pewee *
Pacific-slope Flycatcher * (incl. SCI endemic)
Ash-throated Flycatcher *
Western Kingbird *
Gray Vireo *
Cassin's Vireo *
Warbling Vireo * (potential split)
Island Scrub-Jay *
Yellow-billed Magpie *
Purple Martin *
Violet-green Swallow *
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cliff Swallow *
Barn Swallow *
Chestnut-backed Chickadee *
White-breasted Nuthatch (potential split)
Marsh Wren (potential split)
Bewick's Wren (incl. SCI endemic)
Le Conte's Thrasher *
White Wagtail *
House Finch (incl. SCI endemic)
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)
Black-chinned Sparrow *
Song Sparrow (incl. SCI endemic)
Western Tanager *
Black-headed Grosbeak *
Blue Grosbeak *
Lazuli Bunting *
Bronzed 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
California Sea Lion
* * *
APRIL CALIFORNIA MBWeeks PHOTO GALLERY
~ Also see the photo gallery on the Winter California MBWeeks page ~
Santa Cruz Island Fox ~ Santa Cruz I. (2017; Doug Johnson photo)
Yellow-billed Magpie ~ Los Alamos County Park (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Violet-green Swallow ~ Los Alamos County Park (2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Rock Wren ~ Kitchen Creek Road (2017; Doug Johnson photo)
California Gnatcatcher ~ San Eligo Lagoon Nature Center
(2018; Roy Zimmerman photo)
LeConte's Thrasher ~ near Yucca Valley (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Tricolored Blackbird ~ Jacumba (2017; KRE photo)
Band-tailed Pigeon ~ Grassy Hollow Campground
(2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Scott's Oriole ~ Black Rock Canyon campground (2017; KRE photo)
Black Skimmer ~ Robb Field, San Diego River (2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Black-vented Shearwater ~ passage to Santa Cruz Island
(2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Scripps's Murrelet ~ passage to Santa Cruz Island
(2017; Dennis Randall photo)
California Condors ~ Hudson Ranch Road, Los Padres Nat'l Forest
(2018; Jena Highkin photo)
White-headed Woodpecker ~ Table Mountain (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Island Scrub-Jay ~ Santa Cruz Island (2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Pygmy Nuthatch ~ Table Mountain (2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Lawrence's Goldfinch ~ Black Rock Canyon campground
(2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Common Dolphins ~ passage to Santa Cruz Island (2017; Dennis Randall photo)
Lesser Nighthawk ~ Obsidean Butte (2017; KRE photo)
Talk about perfect timing. We pull up to what they simply call "The Sign" at 10:45, step out of our vans, and at 10:26 a condor drifts into view! And within a couple of minutes a second condor appears, and they both eventually circle low over our heads – probably within 50 feet! It certainly looked as if they were checking us out as much as we were looking at them. True, there were 7 of them reported at this site the previous day earlier in the morning. (Big deal!) And we know little so far about when or where Green #96 and Red #22 were hatched or released: about all we learned is that #96 was hatched on 9 May 2015. (But so what?) All that really matters is that seeing them so closely was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But our second April MBWeek in California included several other highlights. After all, we came up with no fewer than 224 species in all: 3 more than last year, and only 3 fewer than VENT's 2017 tour along a similar itinerary – which carries a price tag nearly three times higher than our MBW. (And we probably would have recorded 230 if a certain boat trip hadn't been been canceled.) Of these birds, 100 or so were "non-Minnesota" species, including a long list of California specialties – some of which are seldom seen in other states.
In addition to those condors, these quintessential California birds included: mostly-heard Mountain Quail, several Allen's Hummingbirds, a posing-for-photos Ridgway's Rail, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, California Scrub-Jays, Yellow-billed Magpies (endemic to CA), lots of Oak Titmice/mouses, California Gnatcatchers (especially visible and surprising by San Elijo's nature center), cooperative Wrentits, California and LeConte's (again near Yucca Valley) thrashers, now-countable Scaly-breasted Munias, Lawrence's Goldfinch (more than usual), California Towhees, Bell's Sparrows (again north of Lancaster), and Tricolored Blackbirds.
And there were several other special sightings as well. At the risk of forgetting some of your favorites (I apologize in advance), some of our memorable finds were the staked-out Fulvous Whistling Duck at Goleta's sewage ponds, a Lesser Nighthawk circling over our vans at midday, Vaux's and White-throated swifts, 6 hummingbird species (incl. a male Calliope spotted by Val), 24 shorebird species (especially that concentration of some 200 Red Knots at the Salton Sea!), an unusually close Pelagic Cormorant posing in La Jolla, 2 Western Screech-Owls (incl. 1 spotted by Roy), lots of Burrowing Owls around the Salton Sea, our stop at Table Mt (with White-headed Woodpecker, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Cassin's Finch), 11 flycatcher species (incl. Pacific-slope), Violet-green Swallows, 17 sparrow species (incl. Brewer's and Black-chinned), 3 kinds of orioles, nice looks at migrant MacGillivray's Warblers, and more.
[PS – Well at least no one got seasick! Still, the canceled boat trip to Santa Cruz was the leading disappointment of this MBWeek, especially since the trip was made the day before and the day after we were supposed to go. So we not only missed seeing the endemic Island Scrub-Jay (you'll just have to go another time – the jays aren't going anywhere), but also there was a fair-to-good chance of seeing as many as 5 alcids and 3 shearwaters en route to the island.]
April 21 – Arrival at SAN by noon; afternoon at Tecolote Nature Center, San Diego River north jetty, Robb Field mudflats, and Malcolm X Library gnatcatcher-less scrub; dinner at La Quinta and first of 2 nights in San Diego.
April 22 – La Jolla (in time to see their half-marathon and lots of traffic), Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Elijo Reserve & Nature Center, Cabrillo Nat'l Monument, J Street & 7th Street mudflats, and Tijuana Slough; dinner at Black Angus.
April 23 – Kitchen Creek Rd & Cibbets Flat campground, Jacumba, and Fig Lagoon (when it was 98º in El Centro, 2 degrees shy of the record); dinner at Court Room and first of 2 nights in El Centro.
April 24 – Carter & Fites Rd, Willard St feeders, Cattle Call Park, Sonny Bono NWR Unit One, seawall from Young Rd north, Obsidean Butte, Sonny Bono NWR headquarters, and N end of Garst Rd (it hit 98º again); dinner at Guadalajara.
April 25 – Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, Sonny Bono headquarters & Rock Hill, Salt Creek Beach (99º later that day), Big Morongo Canyon Preserve/Covington Park, and Olympic & Drexel thrasher flats (post-dinner); dinner at Sizzler and night in Yucca Valley.
April 26 – Black Canyon campground, return to Big Morongo Preserve, Oak Glen Preserve, Table Mountain, Grassy Hollow, and Bob's Gap; dinner at Pour D'Vino and night in Lancaster.
April 27 – Apollo Park, 60th St & Avenue B flats, "The Sign" on Hudson Ranch Rd (arrived @10:45; condors @10:26!), Valle Vista campground, Mil Potrero Park, Pine Mountain Club, and Mt Piños road; dinner at Shaw's Restaurant and night in Santa Maria.
April 28 – Guadalupe Dunes, Los Alamos County Park, Figueroa Mountain Rd (incl a motorcycle rally), Refugio Rd (more bikes), Goleta Slough, and Campus Point; dinner at Adolpho Grill and first of 2 nights in Camarillo.
April 29 – [Canceled boat trip to Santa Cruz I], Point Mugu Rock & State Park, Round Mt, Ventura Harbor, Devereux Slough, and Coal Oil Point; dinner at Adolpho Grill.
April 30 – Return to Santa Barbara (via some traffic delays) and the Goleta Butterfly Grove, Lake Los Carneros, Goleta sewage ponds, and departure from across the street (i.e., SBA).
(boldfaced species = "non-Minnesota" birds; i.e., Casual, Accidental, or absent in MN)
("Bewick's"/Whooper/hybrid swan, sp. – Devereux Slough in Goleta)
Red Knot (~200 of them at Salt Creek Beach!)
(5 possible alcids: missed due to canceled boat trip)
(3 possible shearwaters: missed due to canceled boat trip)
American White Pelican
Least Bittern (heard-only)
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (still present at Tijuana Slough)
(Nanday Parakeet – "non-countable" bird at Point Mugu nest)
(Island Scrub-Jay: missed due to canceled boat trip)
N. Rough-winged Swallow
Yellow-rumped Warbler (incl both Audubon's & Myrtle types)
Also see the PHOTO GALLERY following the summaries
of the 2018 and 2017 MBWeeks.
Ridgway's Rail ~ Tijuana Slough (2018; KRE photo)
Western Sandpiper ~ Campus Point (2018; Linda Sparling photo)
Elegant Terns ~ San Diego (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Western Screech-Owl ~ Refugio Road (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Acorn Woodpecker (2018; Linda Sparling photo)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher ~ Point Mugu State Park (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Oak Titmouse (2018; Roy Zimmerman photo)
California Thrasher ~ Valle Vista campground (2018; KRE photo)
Wrentit ~ Point Mugu State Park (2018; KRE photo)
Brewer's Sparrow ~ Salton Sea NWR Unit One (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
MacGillivray's Warbler (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Western Tanager (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Allen's Hummingbird (2018; Jena Highkin photo)
Townsend's Warbler (2018; Roy Zimmerman photo)