A recurring theme in my posts has been how birding rewards us with visits to great places, meeting terrific people and seeing wonderful birds. My adventures always provide at least one of those three rewards and on the best days, I am fortunate to get all three. I recently returned from a hardcore visit to California and there were rewards a plenty. Six days, 1500 miles and 150 bird species including 8 ABA Life Birds and 11 ABA Life photos. With so much great material, there will be a number of posts, but I want to start with visits with some truly marvelous people that I met along the way. Sure there were birds involved as well, and each of those brought smiles, but the people really made this trip special. First an overview for perspective and then the people stories.
This trip was prompted by three factors: Credit on Alaska Airlines from my earlier visit to San Diego; the opportunity to add new ABA life birds, life photos and year birds continuing towards birding goals I had set earlier in the year; and a need for a change of scenery to get away from some changes in my personal life that had me a bit down. Intense birding and Southern California seemed the perfect distraction from the latter and would provide an opportunity for those other factors as well. The basic plan was put in place the first week of November and as reports of some very special rare birds came in, I wished I had planned to leave earlier – but unable to change flight plans without a great expense – I kept fingers crossed that these special birds would stay until I could visit.
The basic plan was to start in San Jose and work my way south (with a lot of east and west as well) and end up in San Diego to return to Seattle 6 days later. Without giving away all the birds that were seen where, the basic route is shown on the map below. Arrive at 8:00 a.m. on November 29 and depart at 5:00 p.m. on December 4 – with each night in a different place and definitely not enough sleep.
Since this initial focus is on people, this will necessarily not be in strict chronological order. But there is a beginning and this person’s presence remained throughout the trip. That is Melissa Hafting – “BC Birdergirl”. She has made it into many blog posts before – great person, great birder, great resource and a great supporter. She provided lots of help in identifying places to go for some of my target species that helped in my planning effort before I left and then continued to provide specifics and encouragement along the way. Ebird and Listservs are great help but there is nothing better than personal advice from someone who has been there. Thank you as always Melissa.
Melissa Hafting (with Ilya Polyaev – another great birder)
My first notable interpersonal interaction on the ground in California was with a gal who was a heavy equipment operator at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – in the Big Sur area (No. 5 on the map). I was on a quest to see my first ever California Condor. Advice from Ebird and details from Melissa said a great place was at Nepenthe on Highway 1 in the Big Sur area within the park. The problem was that due to landslides and fires, Highway 1 was closed seemingly just at or perhaps just south of the Nepenthe “hot spot”. I pulled into the Park Visitor Center hoping for some information and dreading that the closure would preclude me from finding a Condor, I found it too was closed and a crew was preparing to go out to work on that closed road. I was worried.
A lot of adrenaline had built as I neared what I was hoping was the place where I would finally find this important bird – symbolic with the Whooping Crane as great conservation success stories, bringing back species from near extinction. Finding a California Condor was the original major motivation for taking this trip. The sign of the road closure and then the Visitor Center closure were real downers. Would this all be for naught? The only folks around were that road crew – about to go to work.
“Val” (not her real name), was about to climb up on a grader, but she gave me a big smile as I approached her figuring I might get better info on the road closure. She wasn’t a birder, but she knew her Condors and gave me very specific suggestions about where to go – which was just about where Melissa had recommended and was only a mile or so away, and yes just before where the road was closed. We had a really fun 5 minute visit talking about Condors, the Park, roadwork and the best place to get breakfast. And she confirmed that yes I would not be able to continue south (my original plan) and would have to retrace my steps 35 miles north back to Monterey. Not great news – but who cared so long as I found my Condor. This interaction reversed my ebbing spirits and that elated sense of anticipation that had been building before the road closure sign, returned and grew.
A few minutes later I went to “Val’s Spot” and not more than 2 minutes after parking, three California Condors flew right overhead. WOW!!! They are huge. They are iconic and now they were on my Life List. The light wasn’t perfect but I got nice photos as I watched them glide effortlessly less than 100 feet above me. It was one of those sublime and perfect moments – one of my best in birding. I had had excellent birding the day before (remember this is not chronological) and now day 2 instead of being a failure was off to a fabulous start. The birds were gone within a few minutes and I decided not to stay and hope for more. As I turned and headed back north, I passed the road crew and gave Val a big thumbs up. Her smile was almost as big as mine.
Skipping some stops, some great birds and many miles, my next wonderful interactions all relate to my visit to Santa Cruz Island. Part of the Channel Islands National National Park, Santa Cruz is the largest of the Islands across the Santa Barbara Channel about 30 miles from Ventura. Island Packers Cruises runs a passenger only high speed boat service to two landing spots on the Island – taking campers, kayakers, and day visitors like me. The crossing provides opportunities to see both avian and mammalian sea life and on this day was smooth and very comfortable with many sightings of whales, dolphins and seabirds – details to be provided in a later post.
Everything about the Island Packers operation was terrific including helpful staff and our bird savvy boat captain, Dave Corey. Although the main bird target for the trip was the Island Scrubjay that is endemic to Santa Cruz Island, my planning had also included the hope for a Black Vented Shearwater on the passage over. Melissa had almost guaranteed that I would see this ABA Lifer from the boat but I had not found it reported on the trip on Ebird for early December. Before embarking I asked some of the Island Packers staff about it and they said – just tell the Captain of your interest.
Once on board I stationed myself next to the Captain’s wheelhouse and when I had a chance told Captain Dave of my interest. He was busy with many details before leaving but said we would most likely see the Shearwaters and other good birds and he would call one out if need be. Need be never arose as there were many Shearwaters beginning not long after departure, but his confidence and openness to help were a great help and relief and often on the trip over and during the return, I visited with him, shared stories and pictures and greatly enjoyed his company and expertise. He also did a superb job navigating the admittedly calm seas and getting us great views of dolphins and whales. He made a great trip even greater.
Captain Dave Corey – Island Packers Cruises
Black Vented Shearwater
Volunteer naturalists accompany each group to Santa Cruz Island. Once again – very positive personal interactions. One naturalist had great suggestions on how best to find the targeted Island Scrubjay. I followed her advice and was successful. I bumped into her midday and she was seemingly almost as happy as I was about my success, had lots of stories and was just a very positive, good person. I had a fun talk with another of the volunteers waiting for the boat to take us back to Ventura. He was about my same age (old!!) and although not a bird person was knowledgeable from his training program. I learned a lot about the interesting history of the Island and its flora and fauna but more interesting was our shared reminiscences of our youths and especially the impact of the horrible Vietnam War on our generation. I learned of his much earlier near hippie life, how he “medicated” himself to flunk his draft physical etc. Simple person to person contact that added depth and texture to the trip. Of course if I had not seen the Island Scrubjay, that depth may not have counted for as much.
Among other places the next day I ventured to Barstow where a very rare Rufous Backed Robin had been hanging out for the past week. This was one of those much sought after ABA Lifer opportunities that had not been on my radar during the initial trip planning but sure was once I learned of its presence and fingers were crossed it would remain. As I have often written, when chasing a rarity it is a good rule to look for the other birders already in the area and see if they were on the bird. This was brought home very quickly at the Barstow Community College when I walked towards the grassy area where the bird had been most often seen. There were several birders there with cameras and binoculars trained on two robin like birds that were on the ground between me and them. I grabbed my camera and began taking pictures without first identifying the birds. Was it really going to be this easy? Well, no. When I finally looked at the birds, I discovered that they were only cousins of the targeted Rufous Back Robin. One was an American Robin and the other was a Varied Thrush.
Once I could do so without disturbing the birds I walked over to the birders and learned that I had missed the Rufous Backed Robin by ten minutes, that it had a pattern of coming down to feed every so often and then returning to the trees. It would surely return but in the meantime this Varied Thrush, while very common in my hometown Seattle, was quite rare here and was a treasured find. I recalled an Ebird report that said it took the observer more than an hour before he finally found the Rufous Backed Robin down on the grassy spot I was looking at with this group so I figured I would just have to wait.
American Robin and Varied Thrush Share a Shrub
This gave me a chance to talk with the group and I learned it was a San Bernadino Valley Audubon Society trip led by Gene Cardiff who was obviously much admired and revered by his group. They were very helpful in providing information about other birds in the area and I learned that a couple were transplants from the Pacific NW. And we waited for the Rufous Backed Robin – and waited some more. Since they had all already seen it, the Audubon group departed for the next stop on their trip maybe 15 minutes later. One birder remained. He had the largest camera set up and seemed very intent on getting a good photo. He had driven up from San Diego to see this bird this morning – had already seen it but the light had not been good so he was waiting for more and better. Especially since we now shared the same goal, we engaged easily and quickly.
My new friend was Mel Senac a fairly recent but very dedicated and enthusiastic convert to birding. Now retired he had taken on this avocational pursuit with what I am sure is the same passion, intensity, skill and intelligence that made him a successful Pediatric Radiologist. Very personable and likable, we began trading birding stories including his observations on the behavior of the Rufous Backed Robin and his certainty it would return. I have to acknowledge that his complimenting my daughter when I told him she was a Pediatric Neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital made it impossible not to like him. (Yes I am very proud of her and yes she is amazing!!)
Mel Senac (Not in Birding Mode)
While our talk was intense, it was not too intense to miss the Rufous Backed Robin when it returned to the ground after everyone but he and I remained. We had it all to ourselves for 20 minutes and were able to get great photos. I most likely would have found the Rufous Backed Robin alone but it was definitely a plus to have the help of Mel and others. Moreso it was great just to spend quality time together and to share a special bird with a special person.
Rufous Backed Robin
Time to skip some stops again to get to two more terrific folks whose company and spirit were greatly enjoyed on this trip. I was in the San Diego area. No more Life birds to pursue but I was looking for some new ABA Photos and some ABA year birds. A key spot was the Tijuana Slough NWR. One target was a Ridgway’s Rail which I had first seen in my earliest days as a birder in Palo Alto more than 40 years ago when I played hooky from Stanford Law School and visited Baylands Park. Back then it was called a Clapper Rail but by the next time I saw one – at this same Tijuana NWR location earlier this year – it had been split off as a separate species from the Clapper Rail of the East Coast – but no photo. This was also a good spot for Nelson’s Sparrow a new ABA Bird for the year. The rails are easy to find at least to hear, but visuals and especially photos can be hard. The sparrows require both luck and some expertise. Timing the tide is important and the best time is on an incoming high tide.
I got to the NWR just about at the peak of a good high tide. I had a general sense of where to look but planned to stop at the Visitor’s Center to get some specific help. Unfortunately it was closed that day. That was the bad news. What turned out to be very good news and probably the most special of the intersections on the trip was that I could see a birder with a scope about a quarter mile down one of the trails. The plan quickly became to make contact with him or her as quickly as I could and hope for some local expertise and help. As I approached I waved and got an acknowledgement back. And it was definitely a “her” (more on that later). My first words to her were “Can you guess what I am looking for?” She quickly established her knowing expertise with the response “How about Nelson’s Sparrow and Ridgway’s Rail“. But way beyond expertise, she established immediate rapport and my gratitude when she added, “Come on I will show you.” Now understand she had finished her birding and had been heading back to the parking lot when I intruded. So this was a significant act of kindness.
We walked out towards where she had just been and not more than two minutes later she continued to rise on my gratitude and respect scales when she said, “There’s a rail on the path!” She had spied one just ahead of us – in the open and quickly got me on it for a distant but “good enough for the record” photo.
She added, “The Sparrows should be in that bush across from the rail.” Right again. We got closer to the shrub and could see movement as small birds scurried about – usually buried in the dense bush. She had a scope and I had left mine in the car. She got her scope on what turned out to be one of at least two Nelson’s Sparrows in that bush and the others nearby and gave me a view. I moved ahead and got my photo as she worked to get her digiscoped photo. We continued to watch and photograph the sparrows for the next 10 minutes as the tide receded and eventually the sparrows flew off to other favored spots in the estuary/marsh.
OK – this had been about as good as it could be – quick success finding and photographing my two target birds – with the help of a generous local expert. But it got better. A small group of school kids joined us with a ranger from the NWR and they asked questions about what we were doing, birds, birding etc. It turns out that my new best birding friend, Shirley Reynolds, was a recently retired teacher and it was great fun as each of us answered the kids’ questions. Great kids – alive, energetic and enthusiastic. The experience reminded me of what I most enjoy about birding – the interaction with nature and with others especially combining the two. When the kids left, Shirley and I had a wonderful wide ranging talk about birds, each other’s experiences and activities. I was with an expert indeed as Shirley is doing a California Big Year and similar to my own first Big Year in Washington in 2013, it had not started as a planned goal but had evolved from just being in the field and noticing that a lot of birds had already been seen so why not go for more. The Nelson’s Sparrow that day had been her California species number 450 for the year – an astounding number that has her second on the Ebird California list.
We visited for almost an hour and it really was a highlight of my trip as her tremendous spirit and passion raised my spirits as well and gave me the energy to try some more birding spots later that day. A photo I took of her at the Slough is below. Yes a very striking lady (very very) but who would have guessed that there was so much more below the surface and I was very fortunate and appreciative personally and birding-wise to have had this intersection.
One more special intersection – another great person and this one with a definite small world aspect. A Hooded Warbler had been seen in the Ruette Le Parc development in Del Mar north of San Diego. I had seen this species in Washington and had a photo but had not seen it this year so it would be a good ABA Year Bird – and, a male in breeding plumage, it would be gorgeous. I got to the area, parked and began looking around. The directions were fairly good but it was a large area and the Ebird reports had described different specific spots to look. After just a few moments I saw another birder down the street. After the great success at the Tijuana Slough with local help, I headed his way. This began another great intersection with yet another terrific person. Dave Trissel lived pretty close and had seen the Hooded Warbler the previous day. We hit it off immediately and in a repeat of my experience with Shirley, he said “I’ll show you where I had it yesterday.” Not as lucky this time as the Warbler was not found – and in fact we never did find it although odds were good that it was somewhere around as it was refound the next day. But that took nothing away from the enjoyment of the visit as we traded story after story for an hour or so.
Dave is bright, high energy and engaging. And just to be gender fair, just as striking a guy as Shirley is a gal. Not doing a big year like she was, but a passionate birder and lister with an ABA Life List similar to my own and with some of the same foreign travel that I have been fortunate to take. And one of his stories was especially amazing. In September this year my home town of Edmonds, Washington was the place to go to see what may be the ABA Bird of the Year – a Swallow Tailed Gull (See my blog post ). I had seen the Gull the first day it was found by Ryan Merrill at Carkeek Park. Later, when it moved up to Edmonds, my buddy Deb Essman and a friend came over from Ellensburg to look for it and I took them to the Edmonds Pier from which it could be seen. We found however, that it could be seen better from a different spot in the marina and we headed off to look. On the way we met a birder from San Diego who had come up that day specifically to see this incredible rarity. He was headed out to the pier, but I said – come along this way as it can be seen better from another spot. Yep, that was Dave Trissel. A small world indeed. I guess what goes around comes around.
Hooded Warbler (Yes in Washington/No in California)
Swallow Tailed Gull
There were lots of other good folks on this trip. A naturalist at Anza Borrego State Park (the largest in the U.S.) who helped with hummingbird identification clues and suggestions for finding a Le Conte’s Thrasher. A birder at the San Elijo Lagoon who was just fun to talk to and who pointed me towards a California Thrasher. Two guys at a car wash who were as enthusiastic at their jobs and as friendly as you could ever want. Staff at some of the hotels (6 in 6 nights) and at Fox Rental Car both checking it out and bringing it back in. Others I am sure I am forgetting. Each of these people added to my enjoyment and to the success of the trip just as Melissa Hafting, “Val”, Dave Corey, Mel Senac, Shirley Reynolds and Dave Trissel had. I know my path will intersect with Melissa again. I hope there will be intersections with each of the others as well. Somehow I expect that will be the case. Great special folks. Many thanks to all.