California Birding Day 4 – A Raucous Start in Pasadena and then Off to the Desert

Growing up on the East Coast I always had trouble distinguishing between Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys.  I was more into Soul Music but there was a definite appeal to their Surf Music sound and genre.  Visions of blue skies and breaking waves, blondes and warm sand sounded pretty great especially when we had snow on the ground.  Pasadena, California is probably most famous as the home of the Rose Bowl but to me it will always be part of the lyric of The Little Old Lady from Pasadena released by Jan and Dean in 1964 and also recorded by the Beach Boys.  Now 53 years later instead of “Go granny, go granny, go granny go…”, on the morning of my fourth day on my California Birding Adventure, it was “Go birder, go birder, go birder go” as I left my hotel room in Pasadena early to get to the mega roost for Red Crowned Parrots before they dispersed.

Somehow despite seeing a dozen parrot or parakeet species in Florida earlier this year, we had missed the Red Crowned Parrots which are also found there.  This was important because the only species from this group recognized and countable by the ABA (at least as of yet) are White Winged Parakeet, Green Parakeet, Monk Parakeet, Nanday Parakeet, Rosy Faced Lovebird and the Red Crowned Parrot.  The Lovebird is found only in the Phoenix Arizona area and I had not yet looked for one there.  I had seen all of the others in or around Miami.  Today was to be Red Crowned Parrot Day!!

Rosy Faced Lovebird – Someday…

Rosy Faced Lovebird

I got to the roost spot at E. Washington Blvd and Fair Oaks Avenue before 6:30 a.m.  It was still mostly dark and as soon as I opened my car door I could hear the raucous cacophony of the parrots.  Entering the park (fortunately there were no drug deals being done and I was alone) even in the grayness of the as yet sunless morning, I could see parrots flying all about.  For the next 30 minutes as the light increased, I watched in amazement as every tree was full of parrots all squawking.  I don’t know what the official count is but I guesstimated over 500 birds.  I took photos in low light and continued as sunlight filtered into the park.

Red Crowned Parrots

Red Crowned Parrots.jpg

At the time I thought that the Red Crowned Parrot was ABA species #700 and thought how much better it would have been for example if the Thayer’s Gull/Iceland Gull split had not occurred and yesterday’s Island Scrub-Jay had claimed that honor.  But at that moment I was just happy to reach the unexpected benchmark this year and at least rationalized that the extraordinary spectacle of seeing so many flying about including right overhead and right by me within three feet made the experience sufficiently special for the occasion.  Some single branches had over a dozen Red Crowned Parrots.  It really was an awesome experience.  As I have now clarified in a postscript to my previous blog post, the Island Scrub-Jay actually was #700.  I had erred in subtracting some non-countable ABA birds from my Ebird list – glad now to have the extra bird – and taking nothing away from the experience with the parrots – to have the endemic Island Scrub-Jay hold that honored position.  And I found another error – in my excitement to see the Red Crowned Parrots I had not realized that some of the parrots there were actually Lilac Crowned Parrots.  You can see the difference (if are looking and at the time I was not) in the ring around the eye and much more extensive red in the Red Crowned ones.  I had seen some Lilac Crowneds in Florida and they are not yet recognized by the ABA – maybe someday.

Lilac Crowned Parrot

Red Crowned Parrot

Almost as soon as there was light some of the parrots started flying off for their day time haunts.  They just kept coming and coming out of the trees.  As I returned to my car and then headed off for what was to be another long day, I saw parrots individually and in small groups flying off in every direction.  Throughout the whole time, the noise had been overwhelming.  This was not a neighborhood I would have chosen for my residence – as much as I love birds.

One of the rarities that had shown up after my initial planning was a Rufous Backed Robin that had been seen daily for about a week on the campus of Barstow Community College.  I had never been to Barstow and in my mind, I pictured it as what used to be called a “one horse town” – an insignificant spot in the remote California desert.  Although not a thriving metropolis, Barstow was hardly insignificant, an attractive transportation center for California’s Inland Empire situated in San Bernadino County.  It was much closer to Pasadena than I had expected – only 110 miles away – north and east.  After a brief stop for breakfast on the run, I arrived at the Community College around 9:00 a.m.

I had expected the campus to be bustling and I would look much out of place standing by the Student Union Building where the Rufous Backed Robin was generally seen.  Then I remembered that it was a Saturday.  I guess there are not many classes on Saturday.  One of the very best things about intense birding trips like the one I was on is that the outside world disappears and so does time.  I had not thought about the calendar at all.

As I approached the target zone I saw a number of birders with binoculars, cameras and scopes looking at birds on the ground between me and them – maybe 80 feet in front of me.  A first quick glance told me they were robin-like so I immediately pointed my camera and took some photos.  Was it going to be this easy?  Not quite.  Had I looked more closely through my binoculars I would have seen that the two birds were just a regular old American Robin and a closely related Varied Thrush.  As it turns out the Varied Thrush was quite a rare bird for the area in its own right, but it is a common bird for me in the Northwest – and what did this mean for my real quest the Rufous Backed Robin.

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush2

Varied Thrush and Robin

American Robin and Varied Thrush

After the two birds flew back into the bushes, I went over to the other birders and found that most of them were on a San Bernadino Audubon Society field trip being led by Gene Cardiff – a legendary birder, leader and educator.  I was told that I had missed the Rufous Backed Robin by 10 minutes.  They had all had good looks on the grassy area just in front of the building but it had flown back into the Cypress trees.  Apparently this was its modus operandi and it would return to feed some more on the ground — soon.  Soon turned out to be longer than 15 minutes and with other places to go, the group headed off.  One birder remained, Mel Senac.  I wrote about Mel in my first blog about this trip.  Great guy and excellent birder.  We traded stories and waited.  He had seen it also but wanted a better photo.  In about 10 minutes we both got that photo opportunity as the Rufous Backed Robin flew down onto the grass less than 50 feet from us.  The light was good and our cameras were ready.

Rufous Backed Robin

Rufous Backed Robin 2

Looking very much like our American Robin, except – are you ready for this? – it has a rufous back – the Rufous Backed Robin is a fairly common bird of western and central Mexico.  The first ABA record was in 1960 and it is now generally seen every year somewhere in the Southwestern U.S.  In fact during the same week I saw this guy in California, Rufous Backed Robins were seen in Nevada and Arizona.  But mine was right in front of me in Barstow – my second ABA Life Bird of the day – and it was not yet 10 a.m.  That was the good news – the very good news.  The bad news was that there were no more ABA Lifers to be seen.  But there were still a number of  new ABA photo possibilities on my list and with three days remaining – maybe something else would show up.

I took more photos of the Rufous Backed Robin, the American Robin and the Varied Thrush.  A Hermit Thrush was also there and I took his photo as well.  Mel and I both dreamed of a shot with the Rufous Backed Robin, American Robin and Varied Thrush all together in the same field of vision.  It did not happen so I headed off.  Four thrushes together in the same small area was pretty cool though.  I also saw Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds on this trip – a pretty good six thrush tally.  Then I thought about one of my trips in Washington – no Rufous Backed Robin but in addition to those other five thrush species, I had had Townsend’s Solitaire, Veery, and Swainson’s Thrush – an eight thrush trip.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

When I had first started planning this trip, a much sought after new Life Bird was a Yellow Footed Gull.  Another Mexican resident, each year a small group makes it to the Salton Sea and they are readily found there in late summer.  In each of the last five years, a few have over wintered and were seen in November/December.  Unlucky me, the last one seen at Salton Sea this year was on October 18th.  It was very unlikely that I would find one there, but there were two other new ABA Year birds that were possible – Ross’s Goose and Lesser Black Backed Gull (although there were no Ebird reports for this year). It was either give that a try or forego both species and head to Borrego Springs where I could try again for a photo of a Bell’s Sparrow and also look for LeConte’s Thrasher.  Even though it was a long drive (180 miles)  and a bit out of the way to get back to Borrego Springs, it was early and I decided to head off to Salton Sea and bird Borrego Springs late that day and again the following day.

Yellow Footed Gull (Audubon Photo)

Yellow Footed Gull

The gulls were not cooperative but I found a half dozen Ross’s Geese mixed in with the Snow Geese and also added a lot of other new trip birds.  Probably my favorites there were the Sandhill Cranes – first heard and then seen on a distant field – and a nice flock of White Faced Ibis.

Ross’s Goose

Ross's Goose

White Faced Ibis

White Faced Ibis1

It was less than an hour to Borrego Springs – so I made a room reservation – and headed off arriving at the Borrego Springs Water Treatment Plant around 3:45 p.m.  Light was already starting to go, but I used the 30 minutes or so of decent light as best I could.  I found what at first I thought might be a rare for the area Sage Thrasher but later changed my identification to a Northern Mockingbird appearing too brown in that low light.  I also had an acceptable photo of a Costa’s Hummingbird and a good one of a Black Tailed Gnatcatcher. I also had a few Verdin and many Phainopepla – striking, bold and rather noisy birds.  I had seen them all on my visit to the area with Lynette Bruett in better days together earlier in the year.  But no Bell’s Sparrow.

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher





It had been a wonderful day covering lots of territory and quite a mix of birds.  The two ABA Life Birds were of course the highlights – bolstered by meeting Gene Cardiff and visiting with Mel Senac.  The disappointment of not finding the Yellow Footed Gull was more than made up for by the Rufous Backed Robin.

New ABA Life Birds:  #701 Red Crowned Parrot and #702 Rufous Backed Robin

New ABA Photos:  Same

NEW ABA Year Birds:   Same plus Ross’s Goose

The  trip list total was now at 122

One thought on “California Birding Day 4 – A Raucous Start in Pasadena and then Off to the Desert

  1. Fantastic post. I love your shots of the Rufous-backed Robin. If it is there when I’m in California in Jan and Feb I’ll go see it. The Rosy-faced lovebirds are so cute and easy to find in Phoenix go to Encanto Park they are impossible to miss. Not far from there is a great spot for Le Conte’s, Bendire’s and Crissal Thrasher as well.

    Getting back to your trip. Glad you went to that roost I suggested I don’t know anyone who has dipped at the one in Pasedena. The Lindo Lane roost in San Diego is more unreliable for the Red-crowned Parrots. I think it’s a great 700th ABA bird big congratulations on that amazing total! I really loved watching them and photographing them in Texas this year. I love parrots though..

    As I told you today the Nazca Boobies are back… if they stick I’ll drive the 3 hours from Palm Springs for them LOL.

    I love your photo of the Phainopepla absolutely fantastic! I love those birds and their calls. Too bad about Le Conte’s Sparrow dip at Borrego Sewage treatment plant appears they arent as easy there as they used to be. Not that they were ever “Easy”.

    I hope a Yellow-footed Gull will be there when I go to the Salton Sea but like you I am doubtful but I will try anyway. I love your shot of the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. They are such hard birds to photograph.

    I am thoroughly enjoying your blog posts on this California trip.

    All the best.


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