The Nazca Booby is a species that until mid-November last year had been found only in the Eastern Pacific Ocean – primarily in the Galapagos Islands. Then one showed up offshore in Southern California. It was on my “maybe list” on my California trip in late November and early December in 2017 but it had departed a day before I got to the area. Oh well.
But then the week after I left San Diego two of these mega rarities showed up in San Diego Bay – possibly having hitched a ride on a banana boat. As tempting as it was, I just could not justify a return trip to where I had just been. But the Boobies kept being seen – every day. After my Big Month in Washington in January, I thought about a trip but only if there was a chance for some other “target birds”. A Red Throated Pipit had been seen just south of San Diego in January and that definitely qualified as a second Lifer – justification for a trip. BUT…then it seemed to have disappeared. So I went to Arizona for 4 days instead. No complaints but no Boobies either.
Then three things occurred that made it impossible for me to resist going after all. First, seemingly out of the blue, Edmonds birding friend Ann Marie Wood made a one day trip south and got the Booby. Second, B.C. birding friend Melissa Hafting made the same trip (coincidentally on the same day) and also got the Booby (as well as a photo of a Greater Pewee – one I needed for my ABA Photo list) and third – the Pipit was refound and being seen sporadically. I cashed in some miles on Alaska Airlines and headed south very early on February 28. It turned out that another birding friend, Doug Schurman from Seattle, was going to be in San Diego the same time and we coordinated renting a boat to get out close to the Booby in the Bay, the same approach used by Ann Marie and Melissa.
Since Doug could not go for the Booby until March 1st, I first headed to Black Canyon Road just east of Ramona, California – less than 30 miles east of San Diego. The goal was to finally get an ABA first photo of a Bell’s Sparrow. Nancy Christenson, a star birder in the area, had given superb directions on the San Diego birding listserv to three spots along that road where the sparrows were regular and she had had many with photos the previous week. Her instructions should be the template for directions for all to use – precise down to road signs and distances within tenths of a mile. I found all of the spots easily but alas found maybe a single Bell’s Sparrow, and as had been my experience on the only other occasion where I searched for one, I could not get it out in the open. It was a beautiful area – very birdy but no Bell’s Sparrow photo. Not a great start.
I birded without specific focus on the way back towards San Diego and stopped at Santee Lakes where I had finally gotten a photo of Scaly Breasted Munias last year. A decent smattering of birds including some hide and seek Munias. The “best” birds were a White Throated Swift and a Vaux’s Swift, both First of Year for me and the latter pretty early there. The best photos were of a Snowy Egret and a female Wood Duck not as showy as her mate but a very striking bird.
Female Wood Duck
My hotel for the night was in Chula Vista – not too far from the Tijuana Slough NWR so I headed there next going the long route through Coronado to check out where we would get our boat the next day – definitely a high rent district. It was very slow at the NWR and starting to lose light. It had not been a great day and I needed a boost. One came in the form of a pair of Ridgway’s Rails that came out into the open in one of the channels. I got my first ABA photo of one here last December. These photos were MUCH better!!
Maybe this is what was needed to turn things around – just in time for chasing the Booby in the Bay the next day.
The Greater Pewee was being seen fairly regularly in Balboa Park. Mel Senac, who I met last year at the Rufous Backed Robin stakeout had advised that the best time to try for it was before (;30 a.m. or in the late afternoon. Doug could not try for the Nazca Booby until noon so I fought the morning traffic and got to Balboa Park a little after 8:00. I had very specific instructions from Melissa – necessary as it is a very big park. It took a while to find parking but I made it to the target area near the restrooms at the intersection of Juniper and Balboa being met by a Western Bluebird – one of many – hopefully that was an omen.
I searched every tree and tried all of the calls and songs I could find. The place was overrun by Yellow Rumped Warblers, hyperactive Anna’s Hummingbirds and numerous California Towhees in addition to two very vocal Black Phoebes but I could not find the Pewee. I was getting down. Then I remembered that in addition to her description of trees and landmarks, Melissa had included very precise GPS coordinates. What the heck. I entered them in my phone and went to the exact spot – literally only 100 feet from where I had been. I played the Greater Pewee’s call note and had a response. I played again and it flew into a tree right next to me. I had mistakenly thought I got a photo of this species in Arizona last year (where it belongs) so this was a welcome new ABA photo and just maybe my luck had turned after all.
There was plenty of time before our boat ride and I was now batting .500 with a Pewee but not a Bell’s Sparrow. I figured I would likely keep that average with a failed try for the Red Throated Pipit and success with the Booby. Time to see. I headed over to Berry Park . The Park itself has a big grassy field and is immediately next to a school also with a big grassy play field. The Red Throated Pipit had been reported on both but almost always only if the “flock of American Pipits” was there. The advice was to not even bother if the flock was not present.
When I arrived it was immediately clear that there were no Pipits on the grass at the park. Again lots of Yellow Rumped Warblers and some Western Bluebirds. There also were some White Crowned Sparrows on the grass but nothing else. I turned my attention to the play field (which was behind a chain link fence without any access). Nothing at first, but then I saw one and then another and another bird in the grass. They were Pipits. The field was big – larger than a football field and the birds were scattered over the entire area. Would one of them be the prize?
I kept finding more and more birds – at least 24 and probably more. The trouble was that many were quite distant and the grass was relatively thick and pipit-colored. There were a couple of sandy areas, but the Pipits stayed in the grass. I did not have a scope so I relied on my binoculars and relatively good light. I was looking for a bird with streaking on the back, relatively bold streaking on the chest and pinkish legs. One after another of the birds had plain brown, unstreaked backs. Then one bird looked different. It was facing me and looked somehow paler and with a more distinct facial pattern. It was in the grass – not on the dirt so I struggled to make out its leg color. Then it briefly turned and came a bit more in the open. The back was STREAKED and the legs were PINKISH. This was the Red Throated Pipit (a new ABA Bird)!! No more than two minutes afterwards, a bell rang and kids started pouring onto the play field, one by one and then altogether, the birds left. I had been there no more than 12 minutes before finding the target and fortunately grabbing a photo.
Red Throated Pipit
I wish there had been more time, but I could not believe my luck. First that it was there, second that I found it and lastly that at least the kids did not arrive until after I did. There were also some fun moments ahead. One of the teachers came over and we talked about the Pipit. I was so excited I kept calling it a Sprague’s Pipit (which I had missed in Arizona) but fortunately caught the mistake. She was only vaguely aware of its presence after having seen dozens of birders with big cameras and scopes in the Park over the past couple of months. I showed her some photos. Shortly thereafter a large dark falcon swept over the field. Three boys had seen it and noting me with a camera and binoculars came over to inquire what they had seen. It was a Peregrine Falcon. The kids were great – really interested as I described the difference between hawks and falcons – bombers versus fighter jets. Each then told me a favorite bird story. Very cool!!
I then spent a few minutes birding the small park itself. A Red Shouldered Hawk posted briefly an a light standard. A few minutes later I saw a bird on another standard seemingly fly catching but looking as if it was throwing the bug up and catching it again and again. It turned out to be a Cassin’s Kingbird and instead of a bug, it was a large berry (after all it was Berry Park!). Maybe it was trying to position the berry to swallow it, but it was still working on it when I left.
Red Shouldered Hawk
Cassin’s Kingbird with Berry
Planning the trip, I had figured the odds were 90% for the Bell’s Sparrow, 80% for the Greater Pewee, 95% for the Nazca Booby and 10% for the Red Throated Pipit. I was way off on two of them and hoping I was right for the biggest prize of all. It was close to the time to see.
First I headed to the South End of Seacoast drive where a Reddish Egret had been seen and where odds were good to find a Little Blue Heron. I found the latter but could not locate the former. I also swung by a roost tree near the Tijuana Slough NWR where I had seen some night herons the night before. I had been told they were Yellow Crowned but in the poor light it was impossible to tell. The good news was that they were now quite visible and the bad news was that they were Black Crowned Night Herons which we have in Washington and not Yellow Crowned Night Herons which we do not.
Little Blue Heron
Black Crowned Night Heron
Now it was time to head onto Coronado and go Booby watching. But along the way there was a surprise – an American Flamingo was foraging in the South end of the Bay. I had heard about an American Flamingo in Imperial Beach last month. It was originally thought to be an escapee from one of the hotels or the zoo but such was found not to be the case. It just flew in and has stayed to the delight of many. See the local news story. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/south-county/sd-se-flamingo-folo-20180221-story.html. I doubt that it is “for real” and countable. But just in case it is, I took a photo.
I met Doug at the Marina at Loew’s Coronado Bay Resort – a very posh place. Another birder was out with “our boat” so we waited. When he was running quite late, we were upgraded to a larger boat, given safety and operation instructions and then headed out with one of the marina guys who would turn it over to us once he was confident we knew what we were doing. The other birder was coming in as we rounded the marina so we waited and got word from him. The good news is that he had seen both Boobies. The bad news is that one had flown off and the other had left its perch on Buoy 34 – its regular hangout spot. From the sounds of his story, we believed he may have flushed the birds. We were a bit concerned.
Leaving the Marina
Our fears were at least partially for naught. There was no Booby on Buoy 34, But thankfully there was one Nazca Booby on Buoy 36. We don’t know where the other one went and believe me we looked everywhere. More than 600 birders have come from all over the U.S. to see the Boobies. They can be seen from land but only with a scope and even then at quite a distance. The boat is definitely the way to go and this bird was seemingly unconcerned with our presence. We circled many times and drifted within maybe 100 feet without any reaction. Doug is a phenomenal photographer. I take pictures. But with this cooperative bird and great light even with a rocking boat some of my more than 250 plus photos came out ok. A Nazca Booby – ABA Life Bird and photo. Wow!!
The Booby in the Bay – Nazca Booby
This had been quite a day – three targets and three hits plus that crazy Flamingo. It was only 1:30 – now what? I checked out some shorebirds right in front of where I had parked at the Resort and added a pair of Short Billed Dowitchers to my trip and year list. This is probably my biggest regret for the trip. I had forgotten about a Thick Billed Kingbird and Scissor Tailed Flycatcher that had been reported from Poggi Creek – literally a stones throw from the hotel I had stayed in the previous night. I should have headed there to try for these two very nice birds. But as I said – I forgot. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation from the very early trip down. Instead I decided I would try again for the Bell’s Sparrows the next day. I made a hotel reservation in Ramona and then headed to La Jolla – a beautiful and favorite spot. I thought there might be a chance to see some Black Vented Shearwaters and Heerman’s Gulls. I found neither but enjoyed the beautiful place and as always the close up look at nesting Brandt’s Cormorants on the cliffs just below the path.
I headed East to Ramona before traffic got too bad. I celebrated the day’s success breaking my diet with some barbecued ribs and tried for some sleep. For such a small town, there sure is a lot of noisy traffic heading through. So by the next morning I was still feeling pretty tired. I needed some good birds for an adrenaline rush. And that story is for my next Blog Post.