Golden State Birding

western-scrub-jay_toropark-ca_lah_6689I’m in California, and the birding is great! A generous friend gave my husband and I a pair of “buddy passes” on Alaska Airlines, and we used them to fly to Sacramento.

I ticked off Great Egret before the wheels even touched the runway. Not a bad start, even if it was pouring rain.

Keeping my notebook handy, I added a Yellow-rumped Warbler foraging outside the terminal and the huge flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds that filled the parking lot. Birding from the freeway is always a challenge, especially in a heavy downpour, but I listed 16 more species in the next 20 miles.

The rest of the weekend was spent visiting friends. The rain continued, and most birds were smart enough to hole up under some sheltering leaves where I couldn’t see them anyway.

Monday morning dawned sunny and warm. We drove to Monterey, stopping near Salinas at a Toro County Park. I couldn’t get over how green the hills were. California in March can be absolutely stunning.

black-phoebe_toropark-ca_lah_6748The park was a mix of lawns, live oaks, and scrubby hillsides. I snapped photos of the Western Scrub Jays (above), so different from the ones in Colorado. Will the species be split? I’m ready! An Oak Titmouse hunted bugs in the low branches while a Black Phoebe flew sallies from a BBQ grill. Acorn Woodpeckers screeched and laughed in the tops of the trees, California Towhees scratched in the dried leaves, and California Quail zigzagged around the chaparral-covered hillsides. What a delightful way to spend a few hours!

monterey_lah_6902Continuing on to Monterey, we headed for the wharf. Munching fish and chips (made with just-caught cod), I wandered down the pier, identifying the birds bobbing on the water: Eared Grebes (still in their winter plumage), Double-crested, Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants, Common Loons, Pigeon Guillemot. A raft of Sea Lions floated nearby, each with one flipper raised as if waving, but my uncontested favorite was the sea otter, rolling in the water to aerate his fur and thus stay warm. You can’t beat sea otters in the “most endearing” category!

monterey_lah_7191On a near-by stretch of wave-pounded rocky coastline, a pair of Black Oystercatchers snoozed in the warm sun. The spray from a particularly big wave woke them with a start, but they sleepily smoothed their feathers and dozed off again.

morrobay-ca_lah_7495Our next coastal stop was the following morning at Morro Bay. The tide was out, and an assortment of bills probed the mudflats looking for breakfast. Egrets glistened white against the dark sand. Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlews dug out the deepest worms and clams, while American Avocets hunted a few inches higher. Willets were everywhere. A few ducks—Ruddy Ducks, Greater Scaup, and Buffleheads—completed the tableau.

lah_7596The beaches at Montana del Oro State Park, a few miles south, yielded no new species, but the dunes produced a lifer! A pair of California Thrashers sat on top of a small bush, almost as if they were posing for me. Not only did I add them to my list, they stayed put long enough to get a photo!

long-billed-curlew_bolsachica-ca_lah_7833Heading south, our final coastal birding stop was in Huntington Beach, at the Bolsa Chica wetlands. From my childhood, I remember this area as full of oil wells, old tires, and rusty car parts. Now the oil wells remain, but 1200 acres of restored wetlands attract a variety of shorebirds including Brown Pelicans, terns and California Gulls, more avocets in their glorious breeding colors, yellow legs (was that a Greater or Lesser?), Least Sandpipers, Great and Snowy Egrets and a Black-Bellied Plover.

We took a break from birding to spend a day at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, well worth a visit, but a topic for another day. On the way there, I noticed a smallish hawk “kestreling” in mid-air, with dark wings and a long white tail. As it swooped down to catch its prey, all the details coalesced in my brain and I realized I had a second “lifer”—a White-tailed Kite! My husband laughed as I did a “life bird dance” while seat-belted into a bucket seat!

anzaborregosp-ca_lah_9257The next day, looking for new habitats, we drove through the Anza Borrego Desert. I got my first good look at a Black-throated Sparrow. House Finches aren’t rare, but I had never before seen one perched on a matching red Ocotillo. And was that copper-colored Hummingbird a migrating Rufous, or a potential lifer Allen’s? I hope I can identify it from the hasty photo I took.

The Salton Sea was somewhat of a disappointment, as the wildlife refuge at the southern end was mostly closed. I assume something was breeding in there, but the birds were mostly hidden deep in the dried tule marshes.

burrowing-owls_bixleynwr-ca_lah_9653We completed our loop by driving north on Highway 99, stopping along the San Joaquin river to look for Tri-colored Blackbirds. We didn’t find those, but a pair of Burrowing Owls totally ignored me as I snapped photo after photo from only a few feet away.

A dinner stop in Turlock was rewarded by my first good look at a Yellow-billed Magpie. I’m used to magpies in Colorado—they’re everywhere—but the yellow bill is a lovely variation. I’m sorry it flew before I could grab a camera.

Now we’re back in Sacramento. A massive computer outage grounded all of Alaska’s flights yesterday morning, and the backlog of passengers means there are no empty seats for us stand-by peons. I really need to get home—responsibilities are waiting—but I can’t complain too hard about being stuck in California for a few more days. Maybe I’ll find that Tri-colored Blackbird today.

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