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Old Monday 28th March 2011, 19:32   #1
ovenbird43
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California Spring Break

Not the kind of spring break involving bikinis, beaches and beer (well, there was some of the latter two...). My husband has been doing some contract work for California State in Fresno and occasionally goes out there for a week to work. This was his fourth trip since last July, and my second time tagging along. Last July when I went I raked up quite a few of the California specialties, but I was still missing some species and was eager to get out there again. So we both took off last week during our spring break, Tom to work and me to bird.

We flew into Burbank last Saturday, a 3 and half hour drive from Fresno but also about $500 per ticket cheaper to fly into from Tulsa. Tom didn't need to get to Fresno until the following evening, so that night when we arrived we headed the opposite direction, across LA into Orange County. We stayed in a hotel in Santa Ana, a good position to launch my attempt for California Gnatcatcher at Newport Bay and Crystal Cove State Park the next morning. The forecast for the whole week looked ominous, rain almost everyday and nearly 100% chance of heavy rain on Sunday... oh boy.

Sunday March 20

The dawn was gray and windy, but not yet raining as I worked my way up the road/multi-use trail along Upper Newport Bay. The tide level was in my favor and enjoyed the shorebird bonanza, scores of fantastic Marbled Godwits, Willets, and American Avocets, and one each of Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew. Least and Western Sandpipers foraged in a frenzy along the mudflats, while Short-billed Dowitchers worked in classic sewing-machine action. A single Black-bellied Plover flew overhead, flashing black "armpits" and giving its melancholy whistle.

Ducks were plentiful as well, with a teal trifecta: Green-winged, Blue-winged, and Cinnamon Teal. A group of Greater Scaup and a single Lesser Scaup not far from shore allowed for a rare close study of both species. There were Ruddy Ducks, mostly in non-breeding plumage, and American Wigeon. Among the ducks were good numbers of American Coot.

I heard a couple of Clapper Rails, of the endangered Light-footed subspecies, but I didn't get a chance to see one. Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, and a few Sparrow Savannahs (Belding's) sang from the reeds and grasses. The scrub along the bluff line produced plenty of Song Sparrows, California Towhees, some Wrentits and one California Thrasher, but alas no California Gnatcatchers.

Next stop was Crystal Cove State Park. I thought I'd have a better shot at the gnatcatcher here, but the wind was howling! A surprising number of birds were out and about despite the wind- Song Sparrows, Bushtits, Wrentits, and House Wrens- but no sign of any gnatcatchers. A peek at the ocean revealed raft of Western/Clark's Grebes (too far, no scope, and wind buffeting me around).

I made a few more desperate searches for the gnatcather- Fairview Park, and again at Upper Newport Bay. No luck, and soon it was time to head up to Fresno, and in the pouring rain it was a long and stressful drive. But I comforted myself with thoughts of the birds I had seen at Newport Bay and the birds I hoped to find in the coming week.
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Old Tuesday 29th March 2011, 01:07   #2
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Nice report.

I'm heading to California in about a month's time, so very interested to hear how you get on - especially as I've never been to the US at all so almost everything will be new!

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Old Tuesday 29th March 2011, 02:59   #3
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Monday March 21

This was kind of a low-key day, I caught up on some sleep, watched the rain and fine-tuned my plans for the week. I had a 9-mile run planned for the afternoon, and fortunately the weather cleared up for a bit. I went out to Avocado Lake, about 45 minutes east of Fresno, for some birding followed by my run.

While nothing particularly rare was at the lake it was quite birdy. The lake itself held many American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes, the latter giving their weird breeding calls. Ducks were few, a couple of Bufflehead, Mallards and a single Gadwall. A Common Loon in handsome breeding plumage was a nice surprise. A swift rocky stream on the other side of the lake held a pair of Common Mergansers. A few Brewer's Blackbirds foraged along the edge of the lake- common birds out west, but I never get tired of admiring the iridescence and stunning yellow eyes of the males.

The brush and oak woods around the lake were jam-packed with Yellow-rumped Warblers. Western Scrub-Jays called raucously, and Black Phoebes and Western Bluebirds foraged around the parking area. There were quite a few House Wrens, many singing. A group of White-crowned Sparrows included two Golden-crowned Sparrows, my first lifer of the trip. Northern Flickers were conspicuous, while a single Nuttall's Woodpecker was quiet. Other woodland birds included Dark-eyed Junco (pretty Oregon race), Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and White-breasted Nuthatch. This is also where I saw one of very few American Robins during the week.

The skies overhead were packed with action too, it seemed every time I looked up there was something new soaring or darting by. First were a couple of noisy Red-shouldered Hawks, then a soaring Red-tailed Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk that made a dash just over the trees, a nice low-flying Bald Eagle, a high-flying Golden Eagle being mobbed by what appeared to be American Kestrels, and a few Common Ravens. After my run I made a final loop around the lake and added Osprey to the raptor list.
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Old Tuesday 29th March 2011, 03:18   #4
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Tuesday March 22

I left the hotel before dawn, glad to find that the Starbucks next door opened at 5:00 (I don't do hotel or gas station coffee if I can help it... I'm such a coffee snob), and set off for Sequoia National Park. My plan was to search for Sooty Grouse and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, but foolishly had not considered the fact that late March is still winter at that elevation, and the recent storm system had dumped foot upon foot of snow onto the Sierra Nevada. I got to the gate and learned that the road was closed only 6 miles into the park, and although a ranger was escorting visitors up to the giant forest a couple times that day one still needed chains to ascend. The lady at the gate asked if I wanted my money back... but no, I decided I'd make the most of it and just hike and bird the foothill trails.

I spent the morning hiking Marble Falls trail, which climbs up a valley filled with short oak forest and chaparral. The highlight of the morning was surely the group of 5 Varied Thrushes along a shaded stream. The chaparral higher up was full of sparrows, including Fox (Slate-colored race), White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Song Sparrows and California and Spotted Towhees. I heard numerous Wrentits and even got nice close looks at a few. A Northern Pygmy-Owl called from the other side of the valley. Hutton's Vireo was a nice addition to the trip list. A few Lesser Goldfinches sang, and up around the snow line was a flock of Pine Siskins.

I stopped briefly at Lake Kaweah on the way back to Fresno for some distant looks at the birds on the lake. The birds I could make out included many Common Goldeneye, Western/Clark's Grebes, and a few American White Pelican.
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Old Wednesday 30th March 2011, 19:07   #5
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Wednesday March 23

My original plan for this day was to get up in the wee hours and head to the south end of San Juaquin valley for Le Conte's Thrasher, then to stay the night somewhere down there before Thursday's trip to Santa Cruz Island. The forecast for the day though was not promising, 80-100% chance of rain, while Friday was supposed to be partly sunny. So I opted to postpone the thrasher search for that day and would stick near Fresno for the day.

In late morning I headed out to Mendota Wildlife Area, about 30 miles west of Fresno. The rain slowed and then stopped as I drove west, but a strong wind picked up. I didn't know anything about Mendota WA, I just saw it on the map and decided to check it out. It was a fairly large area of wetlands with a few dirt roads and levees winding throughout the area. I drove around for an hour, stopping here and there to check things out. Here I finally got close looks at both Western and Clark's Grebes in the long, deep lake. The marshes held a few Red-winged Blackbirds (Bicolored form), Common Yellowthroats, and Marsh Wrens, and two Soras called. A mudflat between some plowed fields and a marsh held a flock of shorebirds, mostly Least Sandpipers and a small group of Dunlin. In another area I found two Black-necked Stilts. Northern Harriers flew over many of the marshes and fields, and a couple of Red-tailed Hawks and one Swainson's Hawk soared overhead.

It began raining again as I drove back towards Fresno, but I decided to take a quick peek at the sewage treatment plan southwest of town. This spot is probably best-known for its Burrowing Owls, although none were out as I drove through (by now it was the middle of the day, and raining). I did however get a nice close look at a Merlin sitting on the gate.
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Old Wednesday 30th March 2011, 19:49   #6
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Thursday March 24

This day was certainly one of the highlights of my trip. I set out at 3 am to make the 4-hour drive to Ventura to catch the boat to Santa Cruz Island. Thankfully I didn't run into any traffic or rain (I hate driving when it is raining at night), so I arrived early enough to do some birding around Ventura Harbor. I first stopped at the beach, walking along the trail between the ocean and the ponds and marshes of the sewage treatment plant. On the ocean side were mostly Western Gulls, but I did manage to find an immature Thayer's Gull, first lifer of the day. A number of Violet-green Swallows were flying around, and I found a single Cliff Swallow sitting in the sand. It allowed me to walk right up to it- these are one of my favorite swallows, but even so I never appreciated before just how beautiful they are, and I hadn't noticed the iridescent turquoise green on their back before. I reached down to see if it was injured and it took off- it flew fine, but not very far. I figured it might just be exhausted from migration, so I left it alone to rest.

I walked farther down toward the jetty, past a few Great-tailed Grackles, to see what else was about. In the harbor channel were several Western Grebes and two Eared Grebes. Brown Pelicans were foraging, while Double-crested Cormorants were mostly loafing on the rocks. I spied some movement near the water's edge along the jetty, and lifting my binoculars I made out a Black Turnstone and a Surfbird, the latter in breeding plumage.

The boat departed at 9 am, and as we made our way slowly through the harbor I kept an eye out for another potential life bird that had been reported. Honestly I was a little surprised when I actually found it- a Red-necked Grebe diving among the boats, nearly in full breeding plumge- sweet!

I stood at the bow for most of the ride out, hoping for pelagic birds. Mostly I just got cold and a little seasick, and towards the end of the ride I moved to the back of the boat. I still managed to see a Common Murre, a few Xantus's Murrelets (lifer #3), and one tantalizing glimpse of what seemed to be a storm-petrel; I'll never know. The boat stopped first at Scorpion, and everybody but me got off- apparently I was the only one going to Prisoner's Harbor, another 15 minutes' ride along the island. Around the harbor and along the island there were plenty of seabirds- cormorants, mostly Brandt's but also some Pelagics and a few Double-cresteds; Western Grebes (maybe some Clark's also among them), Pacific Loons, Pigeon Guillemots, a single Surf Scoter and 2 Black Oystercatchers at Scorpion.

The land around Prisoner's Harbor is owned by The Nature Conservancy and you're supposed to have a guide to hike the trails- not really my style, but since it was just me it was more like having a birding partner than a guide leading me around. My main target here, of course, was Island Scrub-Jay, though I was also excited to see the island subspecies of various other birds, and I had vague hopes of seeing the endemic Island Fox. One of the first birds we saw and heard, and also the most common on the island, was the island subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler, and unusually bright version of this otherwise drab little bird. I even caught a glimpse of the almost mythical orange crown on one of these little guys. Bewick's Wren was another common inhabitant and also an endemic subspecies. Early on we flushed a single California Quail, quite a surprise to me but apparently they have been introduced. Spotted Towhee was pretty common, while we only heard a single Song Sparrow. There were a few migrants around, including Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and White-crowned Sparrow.

The scrub-jays were not as cooperative as I had assumed they'd be, apparently they are not quite as bold as their mainland relatives, and were likely sitting on eggs at the time and thus quieter than usual. Northern Flickers were everywhere, and being of a similar size to the jays some of the distant individuals gave us a few false alarms. Finally though a genuine Island Scrub-Jay perched up on a tree, unfortunately far away and backlit. I later saw a second one (and heard plenty more), not terribly close either but in better light, allowing me to see the stunningly deep blue of its plumage.

Surprisingly I also got the Island Fox- one was sitting in a tree cavity at ground level right along the trail, startling us as it ran out right under our noses. It didn't go far though, and sat on a low branch to watch us. What an encounter!

The ride back produced most of the same birds, with the addition of Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets. Also another good mammal encounter, a pod of Common Dolphins right along our boat, a mammalian lifer for me. We arrived back into Ventura at 5 pm, just as it started raining. Too exhausted to deal with both rain and traffic, I checked into a hotel not far from Ventura for an early bedtime, with another early start planned for the following day.
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Old Friday 1st April 2011, 03:04   #7
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Very much enjoying this thread - that fox looks pretty special.

Cheers
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Old Sunday 3rd April 2011, 04:25   #8
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Thanks, Mike!

Friday, March 25

Another pre-dawn start as I drove out towards the SW corner of San Jaoquin valley. My plan was to drive to Carrizo Plain National Monument, and drive the side roads suggested in ABA's birding guide to Southern California, looking for Le Conte's Thrasher. My backup plan was to bird Petroleum Club Road just outside Maricopa. I probably should have stuck with the latter only, given the recent weather. Instead I spent the best hours of the morning driving along Soda Lake Road heading back toward Maricopa when I found out that the side roads in the Monument were closed, having started up at the north end of the plain. It was after 8:30 when I finally made it to Maricopa.

Plenty of birds were singing in the desert scrub along Petroleum Club Road, and I was flushing sparrows left and right: mostly White-crowned and Sage Sparrows, but also a single Brewer's Sparrow was singing. A covey of California Quail was milling around on the side of the road. Lots of activity and song, but not a peep or sign of any thrashers, Le Conte's or otherwise. I struck out into the brush, since sticking to the road wasn't getting me anywhere. Plenty of Sage Sparrows caught my attention as they scurried along the ground between bushes or flushed from under my feet. A few Black-tailed Jackrabbits also revealed themselves as they ran from bush to bush or sat briefly in the open. I just love these guys, with those ridiculous ears and the way they glide so smoothly across the ground rather than bounding like cottontails (speaking of which I also saw Desert Cottontail). So much to enjoy, and the smell of the saltbush was amazing, but after a few hours I was beginning to despair about the thrashers. They clearly weren't singing, and I kicked myself for missing the early hours when I could have started the morning here in this easily-birded spot.

I was tired and cranky but I couldn't quite let myself give up yet, so I drove down to another section of road that was suggested by my book and walked back out into the brush. More of the same, and although I loved watching the Sage Sparrows I was feeling rather down when suddenly a different bird flushed low in front of me- the color of the pale sand underneath my feet, with a darker brown tail and a dark decurved bill- a Le Conte's Thrasher! I stood stunned for a moment, hardly daring to believe my eyes, and then I set off after it. True to its reputation as an extreme skulker it had melted back into the desert. Not the look I had been hoping for, but if that was all I was going to get for 3 hours of searching- well, I was prepared to accept it!
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Old Thursday 7th April 2011, 16:24   #9
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Saturday March 26

This was our last full day in California, and Tom took most of the day off so that we could go see the Giant Sequoias- this was his fourth trip to Fresno and he didn't want to leave yet again without having seen these magnificent trees. We checked the website for the national park and saw that the road was open much further into the park now (far enough to get up to the sequoias), although we would still need chains. Fortunately there are several places in Three Rivers (the town nearest the main park entrance) where one can rent them. So we got some chains and headed into Sequoia National Park.

There were signs telling us when to put the chains on our tires, and it was still several brain-rattling miles before we actually hit snow. The scenery was amazing, driving through the Giant Forest covered in 8-12 feet of snow. One of our chains fell off at one point (unsurprisingly the one that I had installed), but otherwise our rental Nissan Altima Hybrid performed well on the steep, snow-covered road. We didn't have a lot of time, and since we didn't have snowshoes or skis our hiking (and birding) opportunities were limited. We did get to spend some time enjoying the huge sequoia known as General Sherman, and among the few birds I saw/heard were Red-breasted Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee.

Photos below... the guy in the first picture is some random dude included for scale, but the guy hugging General Sherman is my husband.
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Old Sunday 10th April 2011, 16:40   #10
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Excellent birding you had there! I'm literally just back from a Baja trip with a week in San Diego beforehand. Despite intensive searches of multiple sites in both areas I returned completely Gnatcatcher-less too (at least as far as the important species goes).

Le Conte's is a great bird isn't it?
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Old Sunday 10th April 2011, 17:45   #11
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Partake in any good taco trucks?

Your time in the Giant Forest was much different than 99.99 percent of most folk's visits. Sequoias are made for snow --- and you saw it. The depth of the white stuff covers up most things 'non-sequoia' too.

Some time try to spend a few June days in a spot like 'Redwood Canyon' in King's Canyon Park ---- for another taste............
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Old Sunday 10th April 2011, 18:19   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ovenbird43 View Post
... the guy hugging General Sherman is my husband.
Either that is truly a big tree or you are married to two-year old toddler
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Old Monday 11th April 2011, 19:04   #13
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Partake in any good taco trucks?
No taco trucks, but we did have the most delicious Mexican food I've ever had north of the border in some random town on the way to Fresno. I knew we were in for a treat when I noticed we were the only gringos in the place.
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Old Monday 11th April 2011, 23:32   #14
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Good.
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Old Tuesday 19th April 2011, 23:31   #15
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I found Island Scrub Jay a struggle too! And I never saw a fox there.
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