Monday, June 17, 2019

Feral Pigeon

While searching for the rare Hudsonian Godwit at the San Diego River mouth, I photographed this common bird.

In January 2014 eBird changed the way these pigeons are reported. All populations in North and South America and Australia derived from feral stock. Thus, in eBird these are entered on your checklist as "Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)."

These doves in their native lands--and if showing the wild phenotype will be entered into eBird as Rock Dove (Wild Type). The native range is North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and parts of southern Asia. The full announcement form 2014 is here.

Rock Pigeon
Rock (Feral) Pigeon. Ocean Beach, California. June 1, 2019.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rare bird: Hudsonian Godwit at the San Diego River mouth

Hudsonian Godwit
Hudsonian Godwit. San Diego River mouth, Ocean Beach, California. June 1, 2019.
On Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, a Hudsonian Godwit was found and reported at the San Diego River mouth by Daniel Hite of Mesa, Arizona. This is a first San Diego County record. It was located again in the afternoon and many birders saw it. One of those birders is Guy McCaskie, a long-time resident and birding mentor to many. It was Guy's 500th San Diego bird species! Quite an accomplishment, as the county total ever seen is something less than 525.

Many spring rarities are "one day wonders," as birds in spring are usually strongly driven by hormones to migrate each day (usually, night). Thus it was no surprise that the bird was no where to be found early the next morning. Disappointed birders spread out along the river mouth, and local beaches, hoping beyond reason that it was still somewhere nearby. How startling, then, that Jeff Spaulding reported the bird a mile or so north at Mission Beach on the open beach!

The bird remained the rest of the day on this very popular and crowded beach. About 2:30 the bird disappeared. Not long after, Becky & Steve Turley of Long Beach ( I assume California and not Washington State) reported that the bird was back at the river mouth. And that's the way it went throughout the rest of the week. At high tide the bird fed on the crowded beach; at low tide it returned to the mudflats in the river mouth, easily identifiable among the larger and paler Marbled Godwits.

Of course, I was a hundred road miles away in the Anza-Borrego Desert when the bird was first discovered. And I was back at work Tuesday when it was rediscovered. So I had no reason to expect that the bird would still be around on Sunday, June 1, when I finally had time to go look. And I didn't find it on the beach where it had been reported first thing in the morning. I didn't even see any birders in either direction. So I drove the short, but twisted, route to the San Diego River mouth through the heavy beach town traffic. As I walked up on the dike, Matt Sadowski was setting up his scope on the bird! It was mostly on the opposite shore. Matt had watched it on the beach (even farther north than I had been) when it flew south toward the river mouth.

After Matt left, I drove across the river and was able to view and photograph this beauty in good light at much closer range. It wasn't anything like the views of those who photographed it at point blank range on the beach, though.

The next day, June 2, the bird was on the beach early, and at the river mouth in the afternoon. The last eBird report was after 3:00 pm by John Bruin. It was not reported again.

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit

My photos are nice, but there are 465 photos of this individual bird on eBird! Many are much closer and much better. Check them out here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Wilson's Warbler in Borrego Springs

Here's a pretty little Wilson's Warbler recently photographed in a mesquite tree.

Wilson's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler. Borrego Springs, California. May 27, 2019.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Site Guide: Blair Valley, Agua Caliente, and Vallecito County Parks

If you find beauty in desolate landscapes, and love desert birding, California Highway S-2 is for you. Known by several names, including San Felipe Road and the Great Overland Stage Route of 1849--now there's a road name for you--this road starts in the north at Warner Springs and winds south to Ocotillo.

History of S-2 on Federal Highway Administration website.

You might say S-2 is off the beaten path, but that's not really true. For over 150 years it has been a convenient route through the desert. Even today travel on this route can be slowed by trucks and recreational vehicles avoiding the mountain route through Julian to Borrego Springs.

San Diego County map showing Agua Caliente Park
San Diego County map showing Agua Caliente Park.
There are several areas to watch birds on this route, but this guide starts at Scissors Crossing (the Hwy 78 and S-2 intersection), 12 miles south of Julian (and almost 2000 feet lower), and continues south to Agua Caliente County Park.

Take note: This is a remote desert area. Carry ample water! The nearest gas stations are at Julian, Borrego Springs, and Ocotillo, all about 20 miles distant. Many of the birding sites here have no facilities; there may be pit toilets at Blair Valley camp and Vallecito County Park. Agua Caliente Park has flush toilets and sinks. General Stores are at Stagecoach Trails RV Park, Butterfield Ranch RV Park, and outside Agua Caliente Park. Parks are closed during the hottest part of summer.

Getting there: From San Diego it is 71 miles east up Hwy 8 and then Hwy 79 through Julian and down Banner Grade on Hwy 78 to Scissors Crossing. [Coming or going from San Diego, you may wish to take the route on Hwy 8 directly to Ocotillo, then north on S-2 to Agua Caliente, 113 miles. It is 20 miles farther, but 4 minutes faster on Hwy 8 at 70 mph over the 4000 foot pass.]

Many of the sites listed here are rarely visited by birders, and then usually only in spring when migrant songbirds are passing through. If you can find water, you'll find birds here in this higher part of the desert (elevation 2000 feet, compared with Borrego Springs which is about 600 feet). Thus, I hope that publishing this guide with directions to lesser-birded sites will encourage more birders to explore and record their sightings on eBird.

Vicinity map of Agua Caliente and Vallecito Parks

Previously I wrote a mini site guide to Scissors Crossing: Summer Tanager and Brown-crested Flycatcher at Scissors Crossing.

Scissors Crossing is at milepost 17 on S-2. As you head south, the milepost numbers increase.

From Scissors Crossing, S-2 heads south 2 miles through the community of Shelter Valley, population 320 (no public facilities). South of town is the Stagecoach Trails RV Resort. There is a general store there. I've driven through the campground a couple of times. Migrant birds certainly pass through, though it doesn't get birded much (no eBird Hotspot).

Blair Valley

Soon after milepost 22 is a dirt road off to the south that leads to Little Blair Valley. There is an eBird Hotspot there, recording 57 species on 32 checklists. It looks like it gets birded an average of 3 times per year, and you are doing well if your bird list breaks double digits. I've never been down that road.

S-2 continues south and winds through a steep narrow canyon and drops into Blair Valley. The campground road is off on the left (south) just before milepost 23. It gets birded about 3 times per decade. The eBird Hotspot has 28 species on 5 checklists.

Cholla cactus in Blair Valley
Cholla cactus at Blair Valley. S-2 mile post 24.
At mile post 24 is a pull out and sandy track on the south side of the road. Keeping left on this road less than 1/4 mile leads to a one-car pull out that serves as parking for the eBird Hotspot named "Blair Valley No. 2 (Desert Avicaching)."

Why? Why stop on this desolate stretch of road to find only a handful of birds at the best of times? Sage Thrasher, Cactus Wren, Black-throated Sparrow, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Scott's Oriole. These last two are rather difficult to find in the county, but favor the Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera, Wikipedia page here). Sage Thrasher is a rare winter visitor and early spring migrant. That's what the Desert Avicaching site was set up for. Avicaching seems like a fun idea that should be expanded to other locations, habitats, dates, and species. Desert Avicaching website here.

Here, then, is a checklist made up of all the Blair Valley eBird Hotspots combined.

Vallecito County Park

Butterfield Ranch RV Park has recorded 103 species (checklist). It is on S-2 at milepost 29. The website for the RV Park does mention trails through the desert, but perhaps these are reserved for residents? I'll have to check it out some time in the future. For now, I don't know how to bird this area, but include it for completeness.

Next, continue south on S-2 past milepost 33. You will come to Vallecito County Park (website here with pdf brochure). It is a primitive campground. It is open from Labor Day to Memorial Day, closed in the heat of summer. Day use fee: $3 per vehicle. [Day use pay stub also good for Agua Caliente County Park.]

Vallecito County Park
Campground at Vallecito County Park.
Where to bird: Although the park has 71 acres, birding is done by parking in the Day Use lot and walking the campground around the 44 camp sites. The fence on the south of the campground borders a damp meadow. Listen carefully for singing Yellow-breasted Chats and Bell's Vireos that nest. Otherwise, the typical desert birds such as Verdin, White-winged Dove, Costa's Hummingbird, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Phainopepla are resident, and migrants are attracted to the trees in the campground.

I can't believe that Vallecito County Park doesn't get birded more often. eBird only averages 6 checklists per year, with a total of 88 species recorded. [Checklist here.] The low birder visits is undoubtedly because most birders bypass it to get to Agua Caliente Park, next....

Agua Caliente Park

Agua Caliente is a popular park with hot spring pools, 140 campsites with full or partial hookups, and 7 cabins (website here with pdf brochure and maps).

Agua Caliente Park
The entrance to Agua Caliente Park.
Open from Labor Day to Memorial Day, only; closed during the heat of summer, the Day Use area is right at the entrance of Agua Caliente Park. If you've already paid the $3 Day Use fee at Vallecito County Park, you don't need to buy another.

Where to bird: Birds may be found anywhere in the park, but most are in the following 3 areas (see map below).

1) The hot spring overflows the pool areas and runs through the campground, directly behind the Day Use area (red P on map below). So birds are concentrated near this area.

2) There is a Nature Trail (orange line on map below) within the park, starting at campsite 105, traveling through thick mesquite, and meeting up with the Entrance Road after 1/4 mile.

3) Marsh Trail leads from the entrance ranger station a mile to a spring with a few California Fan Palms. (pdf Map here) You may wish to walk the trail entirely in the wash (solid yellow line on map below), which begins on the Entrance Road where the Nature Trail ends. Dashed yellow lines are alternate routes. All trails are well marked, sandy with large rocks, but relatively level.

Agua Caliente birding trail map

Most birds found elsewhere in the locations in this guide can be found here in Agua Caliente. Here is a bar chart of 132 species found in Agua Caliente Park on 277 eBird checklists.

One third of all visits are during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th weeks of April. More than half of all eBird lists are from mid March to early May.

Resident desert birds that are common all year: California Quail, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Anna's Hummingbird, Costa's Hummingbird, Say's Phoebe, Common Raven, Verdin, Rock Wren, Bewick's Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Phainopepla, House Finch, Black-throated Sparrow.

Other resident birds found less frequently: Red-tailed Hawk, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Bushtit, Cactus Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Bluebird, Lesser Goldfinch.

Besides the resident desert birds, spring migration here can be strong. Flycatchers are frequent, especially Pacific-slope, Hammond's, and Western Kingbird. Summer residents include Ash-throated Flycatchers and Willow Flycatchers (after mid May). Lesser numbers of Gray Flycatchers (April) are regular.

Other spring migrants found frequently: Cassin's Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Swainson's Thrush (May), Sage Thrasher (February-March), Lawrence's Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Yellow-breasted Chat, Hooded Oriole, Bullock's Oriole, Scott's Oriole, Brown-headed Cowbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting.

No wonder this is such a popular spring birding destination!

Costa's Hummingbird Vallecito County Park.
Costa's Hummingbird Vallecito County Park.
Side-blotched Lizard Vallecito County Park
Side-blotched Lizard Vallecito County Park
Verdin Vallecito County Park
Verdin Vallecito County Park
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in creosote Vallecito County Park
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in creosote Vallecito County Park
Black-chinned Hummingbird in ocotillo bloom Vallecito County Park.
Black-chinned Hummingbird in ocotillo bloom Vallecito County Park.
Black-throated Sparrow in cholla Anza-Borrego Desert.
Black-throated Sparrow in cholla Anza-Borrego Desert.
White-winged Dove Agua Caliente Park.
White-winged Dove Agua Caliente Park.
Bighorn Sheep Agua Caliente Park.
Bighorn Sheep Agua Caliente Park.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Costa's Hummingbirds in Borrego Springs

Here are some Costa's Hummingbirds I photographed in Borrego Springs, May 25-27, 2019. Most seem to be young birds. Where are the adults?

Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird. Borrego Springs, California. May 27, 2019.