Friday, March 7, 2014

Treasure Hunt: March 2, 2014

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoters. San Diego Bay, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Well, it's the first week of March. It's coming to the end of winter. Where should I go birding? That's the question I asked myself last week.

From the beginning of the year I had chosen weekly birding spots where I could see lots of birds, perhaps exploring new areas I hadn't been to before. It is my goal to see 300 species in San Diego County in 2014. That's a lot, but not so many that I had to go chasing every rare bird I heard about. And I am only birding one half day per weekend, not two full days. But by the end of February there wasn't really one location or habitat left to visit where I could expect a bunch of birds I hadn't seen yet this winter.

So, I decided to put together a list of locations that had birds reported the past week that would be new for me for the year. Many of these included long-remaining rarities, found last fall or early winter and now well-ensconced in their winter locations. By mapping them out and planning a route I could spend some time searching for them all, one at a time.

That reminds me of the game "Treasure Hunt" I used to play as a kid. Perhaps you did too. You start with a clue that leads to your first location. At that location you would find a hidden note with a clue to the next location, and so on, over and over, until you reach the final prize. Often it was more fun finding each new note and clue than it was reaching the end destination.

Most of the rare birds, the ones I hadn't seen yet, were south of downtown San Diego. The city is 30 miles south of my home in San Marcos, and most of my birding has been from my home south to the northern edge of downtown. So I made a list of birds in the south end of San Diego Bay (Imperial Beach area) and just south of that near San Ysidro in the Tijuana River Valley bordering Tijuana, Mexico.

I ended with 7 locations, 8 primary target birds, and a total list of 29 potential bird species that would be new to me from recent reports by others. That's pretty good for a treasure hunt! Of course, I didn't expect to see them all. For one thing, most of these were in areas I had never visited before. I didn't have very good directions to some of the birds other than a park or general area. But I could reasonably expect that I might see some new year birds that weren't on my list, too.

It was still showery, finishing up our 4th consecutive day of rain in still-drought-ravaged California. Marlene was not looking forward to spending the day alone at home without a vehicle, so I encouraged her to come along. She'd walk and explore some of the new places with me when sunny, read her book in the car when she didn't feel like getting out in the rain.

Here's how it went.

1) Scripps Library pond, Mira Mesa
Target bird: Cackling Goose

The first bird of the day was half way to San Diego--a good way to start. Aleutian Cackling Goose is not that rare. I saw a small flock in December. But only this lone bird at a small pond had been reported since. It was only a mile off the freeway. We pulled in right at 8:00 am and scanned the pond full of American Coots and Ring-necked Ducks and didn't see it at first. It was raining pretty hard, so we remained in our car. Oh, there it is all alone on the far side of the pond. Next.

2) J Street mudflats, Chula Vista
Target bird: Ross's Goose. Also Surf Scoter and Red-throated Loon.

Google maps showed this was a rather large area on the east shore of San Diego Bay with a marina and three small parks on the edge of a small creek entering the bay. I didn't really know where to expect the Ross's Goose. Not everyone who looked for the goose found it. One person who did find it recently said it was "north of" J Street mudflats.

We arrived at 8:40 am. I started off north along the western outside of the marina and walked back toward the mudflats near the "mainland." There were quite a few water birds here. Out in San Diego Bay I soon spotted one of my target birds for the day--Surf Scoters. It was high tide and the mudflats were mostly covered with water... and Lesser Scaup. But no goose. I spent some time photographing a white faced American Wigeon, which I'll share at a future time (along with photos of other birds during the day).

Marlene hadn't had breakfast yet, so before we headed out into the Tijuana River Valley wetlands we needed to find some food. I turned back up the eastern inside of the marina where there was a "food" sign, but it turned out to be a marina bar. However I noted some lawn in a trailer park north of the marina, and we turned in. There it was grazing on the lawn! It was pouring now, but I managed several point blank photos for the Ross's Goose. Three target birds found! Then on to Jack In The Box for a quick breakfast.

American Kestrel
American Kestrel. Dairy Mart Rd. San Ysidro, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
3) Dairy Mart Rd/Ponds, San Ysidro
Target bird: Northern Waterthrush. Also Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, American Goldfinch, Downy Woodpecker, Least Bittern, White-throated Swift, Virginia Rail, Green-tailed Towhee, Sora, White-collared Seedeater, Greater Roadrunner.

It was 11:00 am when we pulled into the Dairy Mart Ponds. There are three cattail edged ponds here in the Tijuana River bottom lands. The famous (in birding circles) sod fields are across the street. The crowded-looking buildings of Tijuana are on the hill a mile to the south separated by tall border fences. Border patrol agents parked in their green-striped white trucks kept an eye on me (really, though, they are used to birders here). I walked the loop trail from the parking area along the south shore of the North Pond and then walked south and then east around the back side of the South Pond, then north along the road to the unofficial "Middle Pond." At a large willow at this middle pond has been a wintering Northern Waterthrush. These unusual warblers walk the edge of the pond in dense vegetation. If I sat there on a log quietly near the water's edge, it may have come out. But I was impatient.

I spotted 5 species of swallows, including the new for the year Barn and Cliff Swallows. American Goldfinch was a new year bird. And a Green Heron was new for me this year at the South Pond. After giving up on the waterthrush I backtracked a bit, as I thought I heard a Pine Siskin when I was in the willow tangle. It was likely the much more common Lesser Goldfinch, with a similar buzzy call, but I searched around anyway and--What in the world could THAT be? (token Princess Bride quotation). I thought the mention of White-collared Seedeater in a list of birds for the area was a checklist notation error or something someone put in to see if anyone was paying attention. But evidently they are a rather common cage bird in Tijuana and escapees have established themselves here. These aren't the pale form in your bird book that barely reach the US in Texas. They are the more colorful West Mexican form. I got several photos of this bird. At the time I didn't know for sure it was an exotic--therefore uncountable by American Birding Association birding rules (but personally countable in eBird). So I was pretty happy.

I also took several photos of Cassin's Kingbirds, a common yellow and gray flycatcher with black tail in San Diego. Another one looked different somehow. It had a green back and yellow chest all the way to the throat. Bigger bill. Yes--Tropical Kingbird! And posing quite nicely for additional photos. This is more unusual, regular in late fall post-breeding dispersal out of Mexico (rarely all the way to Canada along the immediate coastline) but usually not remaining through winter.

At the car I delayed getting in and scanned the area one last time in case that reported Green-tailed Towhee popped out of the brush, but no. Instead, overhead flew a half dozen White-throated Swifts. That made a total of 10 new year birds, counting the exotic seedeater.

4) Tijuana River Valley Regional Park (Bird & Butterfly Garden), San Ysidro
Target bird: Black-throated Magpie-Jay. Also Pacific-slope Flycatcher, (American Goldfinch), (Downy Woodpecker), Red-naped Sapsucker, Black-and-White Warbler.

Nearby at the Bird and Butterfly Garden it was pretty quiet at 12:35 pm. Oh, except for the 6 Black-throated Magpie-Jays! Another exotic, uncountable on my ABA list, but a terrific looking large blue bird with white belly and an impossibly long tail and black crest. When we first arrived three birds were pulling bread out of the garbage cans and squawking away. The dominant male was fighting his reflection in the window of the small building there. There are often Common Ground-Doves here, but not today. No doubt the hunting Cooper's Hawk on the property had something to do with the dearth of small birds. Eleven new birds, including 2 exotics.

Visitor's Center, Tijuana Slough NWR.
Visitor's Center, Tijuana Slough NWR. Imperial Beach, California. March 2, 2014.
5) Tijuana Slough NWR visitor's center/Imperial Beach Sports Park
Target birds: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Hepatic Tanager. Also Rufous Hummingbird, (Green-tailed Towhee), (Barn Swallow), (American Goldfinch), (Black-and-White Warbler).

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Imperial Beach Sports Park, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
The sports park borders the Tijuana Slough NWR and is a block from the visitor's center in Imperial Beach. We arrived at 1:30 pm. A group of birders on a field trip for the San Diego Bird Festival were here and had just found one of the rare resident Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. After they left I stayed and walked to the Coral Tree where a wintering Hepatic Tanager was most recently reported. I didn't find the tanager or the Black-and-White Warbler, but did find two Black-crowned Night-Herons.

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron. Imperial Beach Sports Park, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
From here we went to the visitor's center at 2:00 pm and Marlene went inside with me. Then we walked just the start of the North McCoy Trail on recommendation of one of the park rangers. We were rewarded with prolonged close-up views of a Clapper Rail! This wasn't a new year bird, but it was the first time I've definitely seen one! I heard one earlier in the year at San Elijo Lagoon, but didn't see it. I recorded in my notebooks that I saw one at Imperial Reservoir on the California/Arizona line way back in the 1970's, but didn't record any plumage or voice details. I no longer remember the bird--I remember seeing the bird, but not the bird itself, if that makes any sense. At any rate, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was the 12th new year bird, including 2 exotics.

6) End of 7th Street, Imperial Beach
Target bird: Reddish Egret.

The afternoon was disappearing fast. A quick stop here at 3:30 pm found some interesting mudflats with some shorebirds, but no Reddish Egret. After 15 minutes I moved on.

7) Grand Caribe Shoreline Park/Silver Strand SB--Crown Cove, Coronado
Target bird: Black Scoter. Also (Surf Scoter), (Red-throated Loon), Horned Lark, Common Loon, Brown Booby, Semipalmated Plover.

We drove past the "guard shack" with a wave to the two attendants who were deeply engaged in coversation and into the Shoreline Park at 4:15 pm and immediately saw Surf Scoters near shore in San Diego Bay. And there! Two Black Scoters for a new year bird. I scanned for loons out on the bay, but didn't see much else other than Surf Scoters, Brant, and some Brown Pelicans. I did take the opportunity to photograph a long, long, Long-billed Curlew at very close range. As I was getting back into the car I spotted a few Horned Larks in the adjacent vacant lot, adding the final year bird of the day.

Across the street is Silver Strand State Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The sun was setting and it appeared to be a fee area. We couldn't really see birds looking into the setting sun over the ocean. So after a brief backtrack along Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach at 5:00 pm to visit a place we inadvertently missed earlier we headed for home.

Marlene and I had a great day and I saw a total of 14 new species for the year (including 2 exotic species). The 12 countable birds bring me up to 190 species for the year in San Diego County.

Rail Trail sign
Rail Trail on edge of Tijuana Slough NWR, Imperial Beach, California. March 2, 2014.