Friday, July 1, 2016

Birds to know in San Diego: any city park with a pond

We continue our monthly series of common San Diego County birds. This month we choose a city park with a pond--any city park with a pond will do. It could be anywhere: Lindo Lake at El Cajon, Santee Lakes at Lakeside, Lake Murray near La Mesa, Dixon Lake in Escondido. It just needs a pond, lawns, palm trees, and hedges and you'll find these common San Diego birds. In fact, all these species have increased in population due to the urbanization of the former native chaparral and sage-scrub landscape in the county. City parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and greenways are where you'll find these birds.

Kit Carson Park
Kit Carson Park, Escondido.
Grab a picnic lunch and visit a nearby park and find these birds. If you need a couple of suggestions, I have written birding site guides to Dixon Lake and also Kit Carson Park.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Black Phoebe
The perky little Black Phoebe darts out to catch a flying bug, then returns to its perch with a bob of the tail. While often found on fence lines along grassy residential lawns, they are just as likely at the edge of a small pond or ditch. They are "preadapted to urbanization" according to Philip Unitt (2004 San Diego County Bird Atlas), and San Diego is a "Black Phoebe paradise," the population tripling in San Diego in 40 years from the 1960's. They are quite talkative, singing a "fee-bee, fee-bew" song and giving a sweet sharp "chip" call note. Similar San Diego County birds: none.

Great-tailed Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Great-tailed Grackle
Large, loud, bold, and slightly obnoxious, the Great-tailed Grackle is at home in city parks and strip mall parking lots within a short commute from fresh water. Nearly as long as a crow, this large Mexican blackbird was first found in San Diego County in 1977. It spread quickly during this time. For instance, it reached Oregon in 1980. Distribution is still spotty, but it continues to increase. Similar San Diego County birds: Brewer's Blackbird, American Crow.

Cassin's Kingbird
Cassin's Kingbird. San Ysidro, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Cassin's Kingbird
Here is another bird that has increased in numbers over the past 50 years. Cassin's Kingbird is more common on the coastal slope than Western Kingbirds; Western Kingbirds are more common in the drier inland valleys and desert. And, unlike the Western Kingbird, Cassin's Kingbirds are common all year round. They are found in tall open trees (palms and eucalyptus), thus are found in ranch areas, golf courses, and parks. Similar San Diego County birds: Western Kingbird.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 6, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Hooded Oriole
Perhaps no other bird in California is so associated with palm trees. These birds arrive in San Diego county in late March and remain through August, returning to Mexico for the winter. Because the non-native Mexican fan palms are planted in coastal slope residential areas, this is where the birds are most common. However, there are also a pair or three of Hooded Orioles at each oasis in the Anza-Borrego Desert that contain California fan palm--the only native palms in California. They strip the fibers from the fan palm fronds and weave a basket nest in the tree. The San Diego Bird Atlas (1997-2002) found 39 nests, 28 were in fan palms, 1 in Canary Island date palm, and most of the rest in eucalyptus. See my previous post on palm trees in San Diego. Similar San Diego County birds: Bullock's Oriole.

American Coot
American Coot. Dos Picos Park, Ramona, California. November 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
American Coot
These waterbirds (not ducks) are found across North America south of the taiga (boreal forest) wherever there are shallow vegetated ponds. They nest in San Diego County, but even more are found in winter. At that season they especially congregate where they can graze on grass. So city parks and golf courses with ponds are favored or even overrun, turning the lawns to mud and filling the air with their grunting calls. Similar San Diego County birds: none.

California Towhee
California Towhee. Palomar Mountain, California. July 13, 2014. Greg Gillson.
California Towhee
You'd think that a species apparently so dependent on coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats wouldn't do so well with urban sprawl and habitat fragmentation. But this large brown sparrow adapts well to residential life, as long as there's open ground to scratch for food and dense hedges to hide and nest in. Rather reclusive, the loud, hard "chink!" call gives its presence away. It feeds on the ground often out in the open near a dense tangle of shrubs where it scoots away at the first sign of danger. Similar San Diego County birds: Rufous-crowned Sparrow, California Thrasher, juvenile Spotted Towhee.

Birds to know in San Diego: introduction

Next: Birds to know in San Diego: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park