First Birding trip of the year: Southern California

by Feb 3, 2020

I just wound up my first multi-day road trip of the year. It was a combination of pleasure with some business, as I had a couple of things I needed to go to SoCal to wrangle in person. My original thought was to spend a few days in Morro Bay at the Winter Bird festival followed by a couple of days in Orange County. I then went out birding on the day the festival event registration went live, and by the time I got home, over half of the sessions I wanted to attend were sold out.


So instead I decided to use the time to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a number of years: head south and bird Southern California seriously. That may sound silly, given I grew up there, but since I’ve gotten serious about birding, my trips south have always been about some other thing and birding happened around the edges. I decided it was finally a good time to go explore the southern part of the state without anything else taking priority.

So, new itinerary: the first night in Morro Bay, where I hoped I could make quick tries for a long-tailed duck that was wintering in the harbor and yellow-crowned night herons that were wintering in the marina again. A nice, quiet 4 hour drive, meaning I could work half a day, get on the road, be in Morro Bay with a couple of hours to bird, dinner, sleep, and up early to get on the road.

Except… I drove out of Silicon Valley in a pretty serious, cold rain, and it chased me most of the way south. I arrived in Morro Bay, drove out to the harbor, pulled out my binoculars, and… the rain caught up and hit, hard. So my afternoon in Morro Bay was spent in the hotel room, followed by a quick dinner, followed by an early sleep. The next morning, I got up, checked out and made another try for the birds. The morning bloomed dry with the rain having moved on, but very windy and 42 degrees. Grabbing the binoculars again, I headed out again after the long-tailed duck. I was less than a quarter mile from the car when I realized that between the wind and chill, I had lost feeling in my fingers, and did I want to find the duck more than I wanted to keep my fingers? No, my fingers won. I got in the car and drove south. Since I visit Morro Bay fairly often and it’s only four hours away, I felt my time was better spent to the south where birding required more planning.

So, off to Orange County. My first stop was an old friend, Bolsa Chica Nature Reserve in Huntington Beach. I walked the bridge and out to the plover nesting area and back. I didn’t see anything too unusual, but it was nice to get out and explore the area a bit again. I then headed down the coast to my evening’s destination, Dana Point.

Dana Point and I have a history. Growing up, I spent a lot of summer time at Doheny State beach next door camping, surf fishing and body surfing. In more recent times, the harbor was a place where Laurie and I would head to get away from the family homestead for a while with birding as a reason (or an excuse); the harbor can have some interesting birds in it, but is reliable for brown pelicans much of the year, and I never get tired of watching them. I figured it’d be fun spending some time on the coast without the 90 minute drive each way to and from the family home for once.

On the way, I did a quick run through newport back bay reserve, but the light was bad and I was tired, so I cut it short and decided I’d retry later when I could do it in the morning. I spent sunset in Dana Point harbor, which immediately coughed up a red-throated loon for my pleasure but not a lot else, and then crawled into the hotel room for the night.

For my night in Dana Point, I splurged and got the room with the Jacuzzi tub. I always look, because why not, and this time it was only about $25 more than the room I had planned on, so why not? And you know? Totally worth it.

Next morning I got up early and headed back to the harbor. Still not much. In thinking through my plans, I had made some changes and decided to handle bit-of-business #1 on the way down to San Diego instead of on the way back, so I changed my planned route. I also realized I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of leaving the car for birding with all my stuff in it, so instead of going straight to San Diego, I did some birding in Orange County first, going back to Bay Bay first and the on to San Joaquin Reserve in Irvine (home of the Orange County Audubon chapter).

Smart decision: when I went back to Back Bay, I came across some other birders looking for something, so I stopped and joined in. Almost immediately their prey appeared — a Tricolored Egret. For me, life bird #299. Also for me, a designation as a lucky charm. We watched the thing strut by for a few minutes, and they then told me where to expect to find a Reddish egret and told me to keep an eye out for Blue-winged teals. I went to that location, and immediately found the egret fishing. I also found the teal in teh same location in among some other ducks. So, this was already a really good birding day. Toss in an Osprey and my first black skimmers of the year and it was a good stop.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is a nice birding spot, with many different habitats for shorebirds, water birds and with some riparian and brush areas, so you can run across a diverse group of birds. If you can only bird on place in Orange County, this is it. For me, I added some nice birds to the klist including a Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Common Yellowthroat and White-throated swifts.

And then back on the road, headed to Riverside, where I had unfinished business. My dad.

We lost dad in 2008. As a WW II veteran, he chose to be buried in the veterans cemetery in Riverside along with his comrades. We had his ceremony there, of which I remember basically nothing except a trumpeter who played taps, at which point I completely lost it. The way that place works, he’s buried sometime later as part of a group, and the headstones are placed a few weeks after, so we weren’t able to visit him at his grave that day.

It’s 2020, and I’ve never made it back to see him in his final place. I’ve tried — twice — and found I simply couldn’t cope with it yet. This year was when I decided it was time to get it done, because I did not want him to never have a visitor, and nobody else in my family had been able to get out there either. I felt I owed him a final goodbye.

I got to the cemetery, and this time, I went inside, and I found where he was buried and walked the field looking for his headstone, and found it. And I stood and talked to him for a bit and apologized for it taking so long, and got a picture of the headstone for my family photo collection. And I lost it a bit, of course. Well, a lot. And after a while, I said my goodbye and headed out and drove south again. I may not get there again, but at least he had a visitor and a friend to spend some time with him there.

Then, onward south again. I had two nights in a hotel in National City, which was perfectly okay and fairly well located. I also had no idea how best to bird the San Diego area, so I had spent some time researching that, using eBird and local Audubon resources. I’ve written a piece on the details of how I did this that’ll be published later in another venue, and when it is, I’ll link to it.

I made a decision to target 3 locations, and then if I had more time, one or two more. The first was Tijuana Slough NWR, about four miles from the border. Got there early morning and took a walk out the North McCoy trail. Fun place. The wetlands look a lot like the wetlands most places, except here there are random cactus growing in it.

On one, I found a nice American Kestrel female who stood patiently for pictures. Other than that,I didn’t see anything too special, but while I was out at the end of the trail I ran into another pair of birders, a father and son. The son, around ten, had clearly gotten the birding bug and was pretty serious about it, and the father was supporting that and going along. We had a chance to spend about 20 minutes talking shop, finding and sharing birds and comparing notes. He was one of those people with sharp eyes for finding things at a distance and really had a good grasp of birding and ID, and getting into these kinds of discussions, especially with younger, newer birders, may be some of my favorite times out in the field.

Then back to the car and off to the second location; San Elijo Lagoon. And a problem. It was a nice, warm sunny Sunday, great for birding — and much of San Diego was out enjoying the day, and the parking around San Elijo was jammed full. I ended up going out and exploring the coastal areas by car along old 101 down there, and came back twice more to check, and never found a parking spot. After the third try, I gave up, pulled an audible, and got back on the old 101 coastal road and explored my way north all the way to Oceanside harbor, just because. Going through South Carlsbad was fun, because like Doheny, it was another beach rat place of my youth, but unlike Doheny, so much has chanced in the Carlsbad area (not in a bad way, I note) that basically none of it reminded me of my time there years ago. Still, it was a nice drive, and everywhere I poked my nose in I found lots of happy people but not a lot of birds, so I made it more a driving exploration for a few hours — with no complaints. In early afternoon, I headed back south to location 3, which was Cabrillo National Monument. I headed all the way to the top, and then walked out to the Cabrillo statue and sat on a bench for a while looking around the area through the binoculars.

Again, the place was busy and not a lot of birds, although I had a couple of cute brown birds pop out and wander around between people’s feet, completely unworried about the foot traffic around them. I must admit it took me about 20 minutes to ID them — and they were California Towhees. That was about the point I realized that multiple days in a row of long drives and long walks had me exhausted and that I’d kind of hit the wall a bit, so I called it and headed back to the room and an early sleep.

Next morning, time to head to Orange County again. I got in before the room was ready, so I went off to Tri-city park in Placentia, a place near the family house that was a convenient place to disappear to when I wanted some quiet during visits. It’s not an awesome birding place, with an artificial pond in the middle of the type I call a mallard magnet, but it’s a nice greenspace with some easy walking trails, and it can have some interesting birds, including some fun warblers in migration.

And mostly, I sat and relaxed, having realized that I’d been doing a lot more walking than I was used to multiple days in a row, and my legs were letting me know it. I caught up on email, on Youtube and social media, and just kind of watched the world go by for a few hours.

That evening I went out to dinner with my tenants — I have a house down there that I inherited from mom, and it’s been a rental for a long time; these tenants have been in it for over 25 years. And that was the primary reason for the trip, to talk over the logistics of helping them buy the house off me. We talked about a lot of things, mom and dad and our families and etc, and I think we have a good plan that will get them ownership of the house in the next few months, and that’ll be good for all of us.

Business accomplished, the next day I had absolutely nothing planned, which was awesome. I ended up back at Tri-city for a while, since I’d noticed an ebird report of Cassin’s Kingbirds there that I’d missed on my first stop. I figured I’d head back and see if I could find it. I did. and it’s friend, and their friends, and… And by the time I stopped counting, I was well over a dozen of the birds, all hanging out on the wires and squawking at each other. I swear they weren’t there the day before, honest. I also ran into another Osprey, which was fun, but it circled the pond a few times without stopping and then headed off elsewhere.

Yorba Regional Park, California

I then headed off to a place I’d never birded before, Yorba Regional Park, in search of wood ducks and a mandarin duck being seen there. I did get to spend good quality time with the Wood ducks (and get many good pictures for a species I hadn’t photographed before), but the Mandarin hid from me. It was there that I picked up life bird #300, the Indian Peafowl, aka a Peacock. Not exactly the most exciting bird for 300, but still. Yorba Regional is a really nice park, designed for those group picnic outings, really, with some nice artificial water features, and running along side the Santa Ana river. Definitely one I wish I’d discovered sooner, and well worth a birding outing.

That night it was dinner with Jason, my sister’s husband, and we caught up and talked over how things were going. Then a early bed and an earlier alarm, because…

Because LA traffic is a bastard, in case you weren’t aware. Headed north, I had a couple of choices, given the data I got out of Google Maps. I could be on the road by 5AM and I had a good chance of being over the pass on I-5 by 7. If I didn’t get on the road by 5:30, chances are I wouldn’t get over the pass before 10. So the alarm was set for 4-freaking-AM, god help me. And in fact my brain woke me up about 3 on under 5 hours sleep, and I was on the road around 4. Bonus points for rolling the suitcase out to put in the car, turning away to open the trunk and turning back to see it rolling away from me down the slope and about to bump into another car. I fully expected a car alarm to go off, given it was middle of the night, but fortunately, no. Instead, I got it in the car and got going on the road north.

My goal on the way home was a quick stop at Kern NWR, and then off to Merced, my favorite refuge, for some pre-scouting and exploring to get ready for a trip I’m doing for SCVAS in about a month. When I got to Kern, I realized it was a hunt day, and in that refuge, the tour route is closed, so I aborted, got back on I5, and decided to spend the time in Merced and then try to get home for dinner.

Merced was bonkers. Even in the main parking lot, the wetlands next to it had 25+ Cinnamon Teal, and inside that group were a few blue-winged teals, just because. And behind them were a Virginia rail and two Sora, just hanging out in plain sight, which is a rare thing to see even one do. I then ran into a couple of other birders who’d just found a California Thrasher and we went off to try to get evidence photos, since that’s a crazy find there. I got fleeting looks but no photo, and I don’t know if they did. We also went looking for a reported Vermillion Flycatcher female (nope) and a Leucistic Black Phobe, which we also missed, and then we went our separate ways. I did later find the phoebe, and I was able to get the other two back on that chase, and they emailed me later to tell me that found it, too.

A leucistic bird is somewhat like an albino, but it’s not completely colorless. Instead, typically one of it’s colors is missing. With the Phoebe, then, we have a normally black bird that’s almost completely white, but the eyes aren’t missing pigments so they aren’t red. Fun to watch, and it was moving around with another normal Phoebe that had me thinking it might be starting to think about settling down and nesting, so it may stick around for a while.

Lots of good birds — I totalled 54 species, and that was without finding the normal house finches or house sparrows.

After a few hours on the refuge, I decided it was time to head home, because I was exhausted. It was a long but very fun journey covering a lot of miles, walking a lot more than normal for me, and seeing a lot of good birds. And I got to get projects rolling for 2020 that needed doing, and close a bit of unfinished business with dad.