California Dreaming – Part I – Anza Borrego

Long ago and faraway in a distant land called California, I began birding.  Most of the earliest experiences were at Baylands Park in Palo Alto or at Coyote Hills Regional Park in San Jose.  I did not keep lists when I started, so no records per se.  I arrived in California in August 1970, found an apartment over a garage in Menlo Park and got ready for Law School at Stanford.  I did not own any binoculars and had only a vague awareness of bird species, but I have a distinct recollection of seeing an Acorn Woodpecker in a neighboring back yard.  I of course remembered birds from growing up in Maryland including a Killdeer nest in the sand at the playground of my elementary school with the parent using the broken wing trip to lure us kids away from that nest.  I also remember that the “Blue Jay” in California was very different from THE Bluejay  I grew up with and it was either that bird or the Acorn Woodpecker that was my first California species.

Acorn Woodpecker and California Scrubjay – my first California Species

Acorn WP1 california-scrubjay

It did not take long for the appeal of birds to grab my interest and I found myself often (too often) paying them a lot of attention and noting differences – becoming a birder.  I spent one semester in the spring of 1972 in Maryland and then had a summer clerkship in Seattle that summer.  It was in those places that I started to keep track of new “life birds” but I did not keep detailed lists so records remained spotty.  By the time I returned for my final year at Stanford, my life list was just under 100 species.  In the next nine months I added 150 species to the list – all in the San Francisco Bay area.   So on May 22, 1973 my life list stood at 248 species and I said goodbye to California.  When I next visited, it was June 1977 and I had done a lot of birding in Washington State, Arizona and Texas and some in Wisconsin.  My life list had swelled to 450 species.  I spent a day at Anza Borrego State Park before another trip to Arizona.  Five new species were added at Anza Borrego and  then 32 more in Arizona.  I was definitely paying attention, but lists were still limited except for new life birds.

It is now February 2017 – almost 40 years since that last trip to Anza Borrego – how could so many years have passed by!?  Had I really not returned to bird where it had all started?  There was a day and a half near Newport Beach in August 2012 and that was it.  In those early years, photography was not part of my birding life.  It very much is now and I wanted photos of some of those birds I had observed in California many years ago but had not seen or photographed elsewhere in the past.  It was time to return to California.  I planned a trip to San Diego and in part wanted to continue baby steps in exposing a friend to birding and thought one day in a four day visit with lots of other fun activities would not be too bird-heavy.  Where to go?  Anza Borrego seemed perfect – a good day trip with some potentially interesting birds (for her and needed photos for me) and some equally appealing scenery – certainly different from Seattle.

Our first day focused on a very interesting tour of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier.  Highly recommended for all San Diego visitors.  The scale of the ship is incredible and the aircraft and communications equipment fascinating.  The history of the Midway and its pivotal role in the Pacific Theater of WWII should be known as appreciated by all Americans.  It continued service in the Pacific and the Middle East.  Very impressive.  Afterwards, there was time for a trip down Point Loma to the Cabrillo National Monument with our first look at the Pacific.  Near a parking area I had my first “target” bird of the trip – a Wrentit.  I had only seen this bird a couple of times and of course had no photo.  It is a skulker so I was not sure that any photo would be forthcoming.  I was thrilled to get a pretty good one.



The next day was our trip to Anza Borrego.  This park is huge and birds can be scattered.  It is a more than two hour drive from San Diego proper.  We left during what should have been rush hour but we were going against traffic and thankfully had little traffic.  Also thankfully it was not the previous week.  Our weather was spectacular – low to mid 70’s and sunny.  Contrast that to the previous week (when we had originally planned the trip) when it was in the 50’s and VERY rainy.  Getting to Anza Borrego means going over mountains and the previous week there had been LOTS of snow, closing some roads or  requiring chains.  We saw some remnants at a few spots but had no problems.

Our first serious stops were in the vicinity of Lake Cuyamaca and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  The road was clear but there was quite a bit of snow on the ground and there were lots of birds.  The most abundant interestingly were those first two California birds of memory – Acorn Woodpecker and California Scrubjays.  They seemed to be in every tree.  One was what is known as a “granary tree”, a place where the Acorn Woodpeckers drill holes and then fill them with acorns.

Acorn Woodpecker


California Scrubjay


Granary Tree with Acorn


Here is a bit of info from “All About Birds” about these woodpeckers and their granaries: “The woodpeckers harvest acorns directly from oak trees and are famous for their habit of storing nuts—primarily acorns, but also almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and pinyon pine nuts—in individually drilled holes in one or more storage trees. These are known as granaries and can have upwards of 50,000 nuts stored in them. The birds drill the holes primarily in the winter, in the thick bark of dead limbs where the drilling does no harm to a living tree. Each year they reuse old holes and add some new ones. The acorns are wedged so tightly in their holes that they’re very difficult for other animals to remove. After they’ve been stored for a while, the fit becomes looser as the acorn dries out—group members periodically check their stored acorns and move the loose ones to smaller holes.”  One Park Ranger we met said the acorns were stored as “bait” for grubs who fed on the rotting acorns and then became food for the woodpeckers.

We also found one of my photo target birds, an Oak Titmouse, a very plain little bird but with a nice call and a very distinctive tuft.

Oak Titmouse


Not far from Lake Cuyamaca we found an incredibly cooperative and photogenic Red Shouldered Hawk.  It made unhappy noises but remained perched on a wire above us as we approached quite close.

Red Shouldered Hawk


Continuing on Highway 78 I plugged in GPS coordinates looking for a spot listed on an Ebird report that was good for Phainopeplas.  This was another target bird and one that I was not certain I would find. At the exact spot identified in the report I pulled the car off the road and within a minute I spied a dark form on a shrub maybe 60 yards away.  It was a male Phainopepla.  I got a quick photo and then seeing no “No Trespassing” sign, decided to crawl under the barbed wire fence and cross the field to see if I could get closer.  It worked perfectly as the bird was very responsive to my recorded call and I got far better photos than I ever expected.


phainopepla phainopepla1

Not too much further along another target bird appeared, a very noisy California Thrasher.  It sang continuously perched high on a shrub and caring not at all that we were approaching. There was a second Thrasher close by – also singing incessantly – must be staking our their breeding territories already.

California Thrasher


At many spots along our journey we had seen hummingbirds.  I was mostly interested in finding and photographing Allen’s or Costa’s Hummingbirds.  Until this point I was pretty sure that all of the hummers we had seen were Anna’s Hummingbirds, the predominant species in Western Washington.  We stopped at one campground where we had at least 6 and possibly as many as 9 hummers buzzing around in an area near a feeder.  Unfortunately they all seemed to be Anna’s.  Pretty near the Thrasher spot, there was one hummingbird that I am pretty sure was a Costa’s but I could never get the right position for a photo to show the purple mask.  Here are two out of a large number of Anna’s photos – a female in flight and a male with a clearly visible long tongue.

Anna’s Hummingbirds



About lunch time we made it to the town of Borrego Springs and then to the Anza Borrego Visitor Center.  A special target here was the lovely little Verdin.  As I was walking in from the parking area I heard its distinctive three note call and then had one fly past me disappearing near a shrub in front of the visitor center.  At first I could not find the bird and was perplexed as I was sure it had landed.  Then I noticed a nest in a low bush and seconds later the Verdin lifted its head for a great view.  This bush was only a few feet from the path and was no more than 3 feet off the ground.  I was fascinated watching it try to weave an unwieldy twig into the nest.  It flew off and returned many times before finally moving further away and out of sight.

Verdin on Nest


The Verdin may have been my favorite bird of the trip but there were other birds at the Center as well, including more Phainopeplas, Northern Mockingbirds, a definite (but not photo friendly) Costa’s Hummingbird, a gorgeous White Winged Dove and a very inquisitive Rock Wren.

Northern Mockingbird


White Winged Dove


Rock Wren 


It was still a bit early in the year to see some of the other targets at the Visitor Center like a LeConte’s Thrasher – guess I will have to come back again.  But one bird I very much hoped to see was a Black Tailed Gnatcatcher.  It would be a life bird.  Someone we had met told me that he was camping at Agua Caliente and had two “easily found” Roadrunners in the campground.  Gnatcatchers ere also reported there so we decided there was time for the detour to see if we could get lucky.

The campground proved to be quite birdy but also Roadrunner-less.  There were a few small rabbits – our only mammals of the day. We also had repeats of many of thee birds we had seen earlier in the day: California Thrasher, Verdin, Oak Titmouse, Phainopepla, White Winged Dove, Costa’s Hummingbird (again no photo) and Northern Mockingbird.  One new bird was a juvenile Sage Thrasher.  I had not seen one before and was surprised by its quite speckled breast.

Juvenile Sage Thrasher




Phainopepla Female


I heard an unfamiliar call that I thought just might be a Gnatcatcher so I played my Black Tailed Gnatcatcher recording.  Immediately two small birds flew into a nearby bush.  At first they remained hidden but then I clearly saw that they were Gnatcatchers and they had black tails.  I was very excited and waited for them to come into the open for a photo.  Shortly they did that and I got a few ok shots in somewhat failing light. Given the immediate response to the call and the black tails, I thought I had my bird.  Then I looked closely at the photos and my I Bird Pro and saw that they were only Blue Gray Gnatcatchers – a bird I had recently photographed in Neah Bay, Washington and which also has a black tail.  Sigh…

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher


Time to retrace our steps for the long ride back.  The roads seemed even curvier on the return but no traffic and we made good time.  It had been a good visit.  Lots of nice birds including several targets.  Some misses but that is usually the case.  The weather had been great the whole time and Lynette had enjoyed the trip and even some of the birds.  It was neither low key nor hard core so a good introduction.  We made it back in time for a nice Mexican dinner at Miguel’s.  The next day will be the San Diego Zoo and then dinner in La Jolla (with a brief birding stop at the Cove).  Sure do like San Diego.

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